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The annual university admissions cycle for full-time undergraduates across the UK follows the same pattern every year – the UCAS admission system opens in the autumn and students apply for places, universities allocate places during the year and places are confirmed in the summer after the release of school examination results in August, students who achieve lower than expected grades may secure a place through the Clearing scheme which opens on results day.

In 2020 all schools and colleges in England were closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and public examinations were cancelled. Ofqual the examinations regulator was tasked with devising a system for assessing and allocating students final grades in the absence of examination marks – the method chosen was based on several factors including: centre assessed grades (CAGs), pupil rankings and a computer model or algorithm which took into account the past performance of individual schools.

On 13 August students in England were informed of their final grades- 40% of students had been awarded grades lower than their CAGs. The subsequent protests resulted in a Government U‑turn on the method used to calculate grades and grades being awarded based on CAGs.

On results day around two thirds of 18 year olds had been accepted on to their first choice of course. However the move to CAGs has caused significant grade inflation and many more students have now become eligible for places at their first choice provider and on high tariff courses. On 27 August the number of English 18 year olds with a place on a course was up by 4.6% compared to last year. The clearing process continues to September.  Increased demand for places and movement of students has caused ‘turmoil’ in the admissions process and higher education providers are facing unique challenges over meeting offers and increasing capacity.

This briefing paper outlines the causes of the situation and the ramifications for students and the higher education sector.

This is a fast moving issue and the information in this briefing is correct at the time of writng. The paper focuses on the situation that arose in England in August 2020.

Library briefing, Coronavirus and schools: FAQs, 18 August 2020 gives further details of the A level assessment process and issues surrounding it.

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