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The national scandal of the lost university places

This is a tale of two students: Mark, educated at a comprehensive school in the north of England, and Pippa, a pupil at an independent school in the south. Despite their different educational contexts, they have many things in common.

First, both had offers of three grade As at Russell Group universities to read history this September. Second, on results day, both received two As and one B. Third, both contested their B grade and, following a priority re-mark, were upgraded to an A. And finally, both then found that they had lost their university place because the outcome of their re-mark arrived one day too late.

Both Mark and Pippa have been badly let down by "the system". What is even more surprising, considering the number of young people affected by this each year, is that exam boards, universities and government bodies have known about this problem for well over a decade, yet no one seems capable of resolving it.

For several years now there has been in place what is best described as "a gentlemen's agreement" that a university will hold open a place for a student with a conditional offer until August 31. However, this summer, because August 31 was a bank holiday, admissions tutors were persuaded not to make the cut-off date the previous Friday (August 28) but to move it instead to Friday September 4. Most appear to have kept to this.

But this still left many students - and no one seems able to quite quantify the number - with "lost" places. According to Jim Sinclair, director of the Joint Council for Qualifications, "Priority Type 2 Enquiry About Results" (or re-marks as they are probably better known) must be completed within 18 calendar days of receipt. Even if an application were to have been submitted on the day that a student received his or her results (August 20), the awarding body concerned would have had until September 7 to complete it while still being able to claim that it had met its deadline. But, of course, this later date is beyond the one that any university would have been willing to hold open a place until.

The last time such a situation arose was in 1998 and, before that, in 1987. Unless something changes, the next time it is due to happen is 2015. In the meantime, every year, countless students face Mark and Pippa's plight of having to delay entry to higher education by a year, or change their original plans, through no fault of their own.

Surely, between them, universities and exam boards can manage to do better than this? While we are told that the issue of the timing of results is "under discussion with the department and Ofqual", no one seems able to break through this temporal barrier.

It will be a good test of both exam regulator Ofqual's commitment to "putting learners first" and to its independence if it can bring some common sense and a resolution to this issue.

Moreover, much as one respects the autonomy of universities (and no one more so than someone who represents leading independent schools), surely this is an issue in which politicians of all persuasions might legitimately bring some influence to bear. What price the rhetoric of "fair admissions" if students are to be denied their rightful university places because of a simple failure of exam boards and universities to get their act together?

To return to Mark and Pippa, while Mark was happy to defer his university place for one year, Pippa was not. To add insult to injury, she was curtly told by the admissions tutor whom she contacted that "if she had got her A grade first time round, she would have been all right". Are some admissions tutors really so dense that they don't know the difference between a "re-sit" and a "re-mark"? No wonder the old joke about admissions tutors being the "ultimate mixed ability group" has some credence in school and college circles.

Given research evidence from Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of London University's Institute of Education, and many others who are experts in this field, that suggests exam grades are only reliable to within plus or minus one grade, the issue of lost university places because of poor marking by exam boards and the impatience and insensitivity of admissions tutors can only be described as a national scandal.

Moreover, it is a failure that potentially affects all aspiring university entrants, irrespective of gender, race, socioeconomic background, schooling, or whatever contextual factor you care to choose. It is a truly inclusive national failure. If Ofqual can't bring its influence to bear on this important issue - and soon - then it deserves to be at the forefront of the Conservatives' promised cull of quangos when they take up office in 2010.

Geoff Lucas, Secretary, The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC).

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