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Universities are being asked to complete a 3D jigsaw blindfolded

Image: ccarlstead [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

University of Nottingham registrar Paul Greatrix explains what the A levels U-turn means for recruitment

It is disappointing that it has taken the government this long to act on A level results, and I really do feel for all of those students who have been on a rollercoaster ride in the past few days. The challenges this presents to universities are considerable though.

Having capped intakes to prevent universities over-recruiting UK undergraduates to compensate for a predicted loss of international students—and thereby potentially leaving some other universities facing significant under-recruitment—the government has now removed all limits on recruitment.

In a normal year, this might encourage some universities to expand. However, there are major capacity constraints that mean, even if they wanted to, many institutions cannot simply take in more students where they do not have the space to teach them, the accommodation to house them or the staff to support them in a safe and secure, socially distanced environment. You can’t build in capacity to house, educate and support thousands more students in a Covid-safe environment in four weeks, no matter how powerful the taskforce.

This is the nightmare scenario for admissions staff, all of whom have been working flat out for 10 days now since receiving the previous set of A level results. Everyone wants to do the right thing for students, who will now have the grades they deserve, and to honour offers made which have now been achieved. Will it be possible in every case? It’s hard to say. But it is clear that this is this most challenging confirmation and clearing round in living memory. It feels like universities are being asked to complete a 3D jigsaw blindfolded while being shouted at by everyone to solve problems not of our own making.

The impact on universities, staff and current and prospective students is huge and will have reverberations throughout the next session. However this shakes out—and I hope we can navigate a way through it which best serves the interests of students who have already suffered enormously—it does suggest we need a very different approach to university admissions in future and that entry in 2021 is going to be incredibly challenging too.