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In the news 21 August 2020

21 August 2020

A-level results chaos

This week has been a grade-A government fiasco. It began with A-level students facing complete chaos. Last week they had received grades that had been concocted by an algorithm with many being downgraded. The government had assured students they could appeal and receive results based on mock grades instead, as part of Education Secretary Gavin Williamson's "triple-lock". But the appeals guidance wasn't published until Saturday afternoon, and was then withdrawn hours later. On Monday, after a weekend of government pandemonium and student protest, Gavin Williamson U-turned. He abandoned last week's "triple-lock",  said students would be awarded their centre-assessed grades instead, and lifted a cap on overall student numbers.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady told Tes that the "U-turn is welcome, but we should never have got to this position", and said to the Mirror that "the political incompetence is unforgivable and there are still many questions to be answered." She told ITV News that "too many students have had their futures turned upside down because of the mess caused by this government."

Speaking to the Guardian Jo said: 'Staff are now facing unbearable workloads dealing with the government's exam results fiasco, after already facing cuts and threats of redundancies due to its incompetence during lockdown. Removing the student number cap means certain universities can hoover up students, hitting the finances of other institutions. It now needs to provide substantial financial support to the sector so that universities can protect all jobs, safely welcome students and continue to provide world-class teaching and research.'

Shortly after the cap was lifted the Guardian reported that the University of Sheffield had reversed its decision to cut pay and cancel promotions due to the government U-turn.

On Tuesday, BBC News, the Evening Standard, Politics HomeLBC, Research Professional and Tes reported that UCU and the National Union of Student's (NUS) had written to Gavin Williamson after his U-turn urging him to support students who missed out on their first-choice courses and to provide financial protections to universities dealing with the fallout.

UCU held an online rally with NUS on Tuesday to discuss the impact of the chaos on university students and staff, and Jo joined an NUS protest on Thursday to demand #JusticeForEducation.


UCU demands seat at table of higher education taskforce

On Tuesday, Research Professional reported that universities minister Michelle Donelan had set up a higher education taskforce made up of groups from the sector, including  admissions body UCAS and vice-chancellors' body Universities UK. But UCU and NUS were not invited to join so Jo Grady wrote to Michelle Donelan asking why they had been omitted from the taskforce.

Speaking to University Business, Jo said "University staff and students are best placed to identify the issues facing universities and our voices must be central to any solution", and that it was "very disappointing that UCU and the NUS have not been invited to join."

Labour echoed UCU's concerns. Shadow universities minister Emma Hardy asked "how can a task force solve the crisis facing universities without also speaking to student and staff representatives?"


University admissions fiasco

Yesterday, the government acknowledged the chaos its U-turn had caused by announcing that it would lift the student number cap for individual courses including medicine and dentistry, that all students who met the admissions criteria of their first choice university would be able to take up their offer either this year or next, and that the teaching grant would be increased so universities could grow capacity.

UCU welcomed the government action but raised concerns about further knock-on effects, including university health and safety concerns and called for financial support to shield institutions from further chaos.

Speaking to the Guardian, Jo Grady said: 'This is a welcome reprieve for many prospective students, but the government's shambolic decision-making means that every action is taken at the last second and the damaging consequences of those actions are passed straight on to hard-working university staff.'


Exam chaos continues as BTECs pulled at the last minute

The exam chaos, seen throughout the week continued on Thursday as BTEC grades were pulled hours before they were due to be released. UCU responded by blaming privatisation and government incompetence for letting young people down.

Speaking to the Telegraph, the Independent, and Tes, Jo Grady said: 'Students have worked incredibly hard in difficult conditions this year. But due to government chaos BTEC students will have woken up this morning expecting to receive their results only to be told that a private company has pulled them. The government now needs to fix this mess so students can plan for the future. We need to stop turning education into a marketplace, end the absurdity of private providers assessing results, and put students first.'


Independent SAGE urges strict university Covid controls

Today, Times Higher reported that a group of scientists who provide independent advice to government on how to respond to Covid have issued recommendations to help make universities Covid safe. The proposals say coronavirus tests should be compulsory for staff and students and that learning should be online to stop the virus being transmitted by in person teaching.

Speaking to the Guardian, Jo Grady said: 'Before universities can reopen safely we need to see much lower numbers of cases, a national plan for social distancing, comprehensive testing, and university-wide strategies based on risk assessments and the protection of those most vulnerable to Covid.'

Last updated: 21 August 2020