LONDON – Chris Byrne and Khadijah E. Olonade worked hard to get into medical school, but the computer said no.
The teenagers are among thousands of graduating high school students scrambling for spots at British universities following the government’s disastrous decision to award final grades using an algorithm.
The process was intended to replace exams canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, but unfairly lowered the marks of many students — and froze them out of their chosen schools.
While the program was ditched after an outcry, and affected students had their grades raised, universities and families are still picking up the pieces.
Many 18-year-olds don't know if they will be attending college in the fall. Aspiring doctors are particularly in limbo because the hands-on training medical schools provide means the number of slots can’t easily be expanded to accommodate those turned away by the algorithm debacle.
“I’m stuck waiting,” Byrne said. “There has been no word about if there’s going to be enough medicine places for me to get in this year. There’s just a lot of uncertainty about what’s going to happen.”
COVID-19 has upended many aspects of life, including the U.K.'s complex admissions system for higher education. Universities offer final-year high school students places based on grades predicted by teachers, but admission is contingent on final exams, known as A Levels.
This year, with schools largely shut since March and exams canceled, education authorities in England attempted to standardize results by running students' teacher-predicted grades through an algorithm that compared them with their schools’ past performance.
High-achieving students at under-performing schools, many in deprived areas, ended up with marks downgraded, while students at above-average schools kept their predicted grades.
Amid anger from students, parents and educators, and growing unease within Britain's governing Conservative Party, the government backed down this week and said students who were downgraded could get their predicted grades.
That brought relief but hasn’t ended the uncertainty, because some students who now have the grades they needed to go to the universities they applied to have been told the courses they hoped to take are full.
More than 600,000 16-year-olds received results Thursday for GCSE exams that help determine future studies. Grades were awarded on the same revised basis as A levels and on average are higher than in previous years. However, results for technical qualifications known as BTECs have been delayed hours following a last-minute change to address concerns about unfairness.
Universities — caught between a government in damage-control mode and students demanding fair treatment — have formidable choices to make.
“How do we make decisions fairly on behalf of everybody?” said professor Jenny Higham, principal of St. George’s University of London medical school. “Because every individual feels that their case is legitimate — and I would, if I were an individual student.”
Medical schools, which already have far more applicants than spaces, face their own constraints. Becoming a doctor takes five to seven years, and involves a blend of classroom, lab and practical training. It’s not simple to squeeze more students in.
“Medicine is an apprenticeship,” Higham said. “You need a wide range of clinical experience in a huge variety of domains -- in hospitals, teaching hospitals, community placements and also general practice. And those placements are both difficult to acquire, and also expensive.”
St. George’s and other medical schools are asking some students to wait a year before starting university. It’s the poorest students who are least able to put their educations on hold, but the pandemic also has curtailed the traditional gap-year activities of travel and work abroad.
“The process is very stressful and it feels like all my hard work amounted to nothing,” said Olonade, who attends a public school in London’s diverse Hackney borough. “My grades shouldn’t have been determined by the area I live in, but the hard work and effort I’ve put into my studies.”
Olonade initially missed out on a place to study medicine at University College London because of the algorithm. Now, the university says she can go, but not until 2021.
“I am unsure if I’ll be able to even use this unplanned gap year productively,” she said in an email. “I don’t know if I’ll even be able to get a job, as many jobs have been cut due to the COVID pandemic.”
Kaya Ilska, who comes from a single-parent family and also hoped to study at University College London, said the admissions system failed to take account of the fact that prospective medical students —- unlike those pursuing many other subjects — have to spend time during their final year of high school school taking entrance exams and having college interviews.
Ilska stayed focused on those assignments rather than her coursework and practice “mock” exams, which ended up being a big part of teachers' predictions. But she was confident of excelling on her A Levels.
“It’s all about the final exam, which many medical students were gearing and preparing themselves towards. And they would have received the top grades if they had been able to do that,” she said.
Dr. Martin Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said that if students from deprived areas were deterred, the grading failure could hurt efforts to get doctors to “represent the communities they serve.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Wednesday that the government was “doing everything that we can" to help students.
The government announced Thursday it was lifting a cap on the number of new medical students, and would give universities extra funding to expand capacity so that every student who got the required grades could attend their first-choice school. But it didn't guarantee all would be able to start this year or on their preferred course.
That leaves many students in anxious suspense.
“I’m thinking about it like, what could I have done differently?” Byrne said. “I managed to get the offers and it’s still been ripped away from me by something out of my control, which is incredibly frustrating.”