The responsibility of universities and the A- Level results scandal

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So now the fall-out from the response to the fall out starts. Attention has moved from our concern about the impact of last week’s grading debacle on students to how it will affect Universities. Universities are now being presented as the new victims. They had no choice but to offer places to those who met the grades last week and now they have no option but to try and sort out places for those who were not offered places.

I am less sympathetic. The reason for this is that I believe that the failings we have seen across all parts of the UK reflect a failure of the whole education system not just one or two politicians. Universities allowed the unjust results to go out with barely a whimper. With a few notable exceptions such as Worcester College, they accepted the results and rushed to get their places filled so that they could collect their nine grand from each of them.

Once it became clear that a substantial number of grades had been altered from the CAG (Centre Assessed Grade) and that the education secretary had offered his triple lock, it became clear that the results on Thursday could not be regarded as anything more than provisional. Another stage had been introduced into the process.

Furthermore, the Triple lock was an acknowledgement from the Education Secretary that things were not quite right with the results. The problem was with the process.  It was arguably unfair. At that point, a Judicial Review was possible to challenge the process and the Universities could have been party to that. 

Even further back, the Universities could have identified that this year’s results would be different and that the usual assumptions behind grade offers simply were not going to apply. They could have opted to change the process. This would have required a willingness to work together.

Supposing that Universities had seen this as a matter of justice. Supposing that we had pulled together as a society to put things right? At that point there would have been two options.

The first option would be for wider society including Universities, Schools, employers, politicians to unilaterally recognise the CAGs as the true results.  Certificates could have been issued, recognised by the schools and the Universities (itself a return to more traditional exam board methods).  There would have been societal recognition of the students and there would have been little option for OFQual but to fall in line.

Alternatively, as a bare minimum, the Universities together could have stated that they would wait on the outcome of deliberations and appeals before confirming final places. Yes, this would delay things a little and might even involve the need to put back the start of term but it would be better to get things right than to do things quickly.

When we rush to act on the basis of conditions we know to be wrong or on statements we cannot hand on heart say are established truth then we have no right to complain about later inconvenience.

A note about contracts. Without the explicitly stated contracts that Universities ask students to sign, I think the places would look closer to an invitation to treat than an offer. Invitation to treat relates to what happens in shops. It was assumed that when a shop priced up an item and put it on the shelf, this was the offer so that the person taking the item from the shelf was accepting the offer. However, when this came up in a court case, the ruling was that the shop had only made an invitation to treat. In other words, they invite you to go to the counter with the goods and make an offer (to pay the suggested price, though you could barter I guess!). The shop then accepts your offer. Now, this may all sound a bit counter intuitive but the aim was to protect people in contracts against specific risks that the court foresaw. Given that Universities in fact over offer on grades and that in effect this means that both parties are entering into a contract without any real certainty that they will have the ability to fulfil the contract, this would have seemed a better way of viewing the relationship of potential student to university.

Given the existence of written contracts, that is unlikely to be the way that a court would go now. However, I think that if anything is challenged this year that a good barrister would be able to identify significant issues with the contracts.

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