The 2020 Public Exams Fiasco

Giving the 2011 Government paper the title “students at the heart of the system”, suggested a caring education system where students matter. However, the inept handling of the 2020 A Level results by the UK Government and by Ofqual paints a very different picture, in which (rightly or wrongly) the image presented is of incompetence and indifference to students. This has been aggravated in England by the perception by English students that their Scottish counterparts were listened to and teachers’ predictions were accepted.

There is a reason why the class of 2020 (should) have done well – they are smart cookies. In addition, this internet savvy generation have cut their teeth in a post-Brexit, post-Trump world in which alternative facts, fake news and spin, will be spotted a mile off. Comments made by ministers about avoiding grade inflation seem to have missed the mark. As no examinations were taken, there cannot seriously be any inflation. It is not comparing like with like.

Universities have been remarkably quiet during this situation. The UUK web site only had a bland message on 13th August (results day) about how well students had done, and made no comment about the handling of the grading. Universities need to be very careful about the language they use going forward to ensure they are not seen by students as the agents of Government. The message sent is no longer equal to the message received. Phrases have been so overused by officials that they now have different meanings – “unprecedented times” now means “we were taken by surprise and didn’t have a plan”, while “robust system” means “computer says no”.

Universities now need to repair the damage caused by the Government to show that they are on the side of their students. These students have an axe to grind. They are angry and suspicious. They also have memories. Remember how students punished the Liberal Democrats for reneging in their promises about tuition fees. If universities are inauthentic in their approach to students or seem to be pandering to Governmental ineptitude, they will be punished. Universities may think they have 3 or 4 years to turn it around with this cohort of students, but if they get it wrong this autumn and students get a poor 1st year experience, they will punish universities in the NSS in three years’ time. Never has the need to show their caring side been so important for universities. All the committee meetings and strategy documents in the world will not solve this conundrum. Universities need to learn from the Government’s mistakes – there is no magic algorithm to remedy the problem. Senior management need to be visible (to staff and students). This cannot just be a welcome via  a video message during a virtual freshers’ week. They need to take the time to sit in on socially-distanced seminars to appreciate the experience; they need to have coffee with students to hear their stories, and appreciate their concerns, and they need to engage with staff who have been struggling with home-schooling and no summer holiday – staff who will start the semester already exhausted and anxious. 2020-21 will be a difficult academic year and we will all need to care for each other. The coming academic year will really show if we have a caring education system where students are seen as valued individuals, or if they are just seen as data points to plug into an algorithm.

Further reading:

Kinchin, I.M. (2019) Care as a threshold concept for teaching in the salutogenic university. Teaching in Higher Education, https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2019.1704726

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