How will A’ levels be awarded in 2020 and what does this mean for international university admissions?


There is still no clear answer to this question and there won’t be one until Ofqual announces its methodology and weighting. This is currently scheduled to happen on 20th August, one week after A’ level results on 13th August.

These observations are based on remarks by Barnaby Lenon, ex-Head of Harrow School and current Chair of the Independent Schools Council, at the Festival of Higher Education organised by University of Buckingham on 7th and 8th July 2020. He covered a huge amount of ground very quickly and it is possible that I might have made minor errors where my analysis is based on an interpretation of his presentation.

There were many other interesting sessions at the festival and I recommend you visit the website where they should be available to download shortly.

How will A’ levels be awarded?

The five criteria on which A’ levels will be awarded are known but their relative weighting has not yet been revealed. The complexity, or indeed impossibility, of sensibly combining these factors is the main reason why this year’s A’ level results cannot be treated as real even though the qualifications themselves are. This year it is unfair for universities to regard a student’s A’ level grades as fair. They may be correct but this will be as much by accident as design. There is a knock-on effect on GCSE results which will certainly impact on students applying to university in 2022 but I will focus here on A’ levels this year.

The five components of A’ level results in 2020 will be:

  1. Predicted Grades aka Centre Assessment Grades: These are the grades that students are predicted by their examination centre which in most cases will be their school. These predictions need not be the same as predicted grades supplied to Ucas as part of the university application process in the UK. There are huge reliability issues with predicted grades. Only 21% of students met or exceeded their Ucas predictions last year. Because of this it is likely that Centre Assessment Grades will be given limited weight. It is foreseeable that there will be significant variation between students’ Ucas predictions, their Centre Assessment Grades and their final results. This could cause anger and resentment.
  2. Rank Order: Within each subject at each centre teachers will be asked to rank all students from best to worst. This ranking is entirely in the gift of schools and will not be challenged by Ofqual.
  3. Students’ prior attainment at Key Stage 2 (SATs) and Key Stage 4 (GCSEs): This is relatively uncontroversial for those students who have this information. However, if students never took SATs they could be disadvantaged. This is a minor issue when compared to the possibility that students might not have GCSEs. Until two years ago when the reforms of GCSEs were completed, many independent schools in the UK used IGCSE exams instead. These results will not be considered. Also, international students who have arrived in the UK to take their A’ levels will be significantly disadvantaged by this requirement and it is unclear how Ofqual will handle this.
  4. School Performance in 2017, 2018 and 2019: The grade distribution that a school achieved in these three years will be used to work out the proportion of students within each school who would ordinarily be expected to achieve a particular grade. The Rank Order will determine the grade each student receives. For example, if a school consistently has 20% of it students achieving A*-A in biology, a similar proportion of its candidates in 2020 will be awarded the same grade.
  5. Comparable Outcomes: This measure looks at the number of students in each subject who achieved each grade across the entire country. The grade distribution is “set in stone” so if 25% of students received a B last year in maths, 25% of students this year will receive a B in maths. This measure is used in normal years to determine grade distribution and is relatively uncontroversial in and of itself.

Aside from the issues highlighted above there are some additional problems with all of these criteria.

  • It is estimated that if A’ level grades were awarded on the basis of predictions without reference to Comparable Outcomes this would immediately lead to 10% grade inflation (according to research from FFT Education Datalab). Students are likely to receive final grades that are below their expectations and this could lead to appeals and challenges.
  • The awarding of a grade when all criteria are available is likely to be most accurate in larger schools in subjects taken by a large number of students and where that school’s performance has been similar in each of the last three years.
  • A’ level grades in less common subjects are likely to be inaccurate. For example, if five students at a school took Russian A’ level last year and all received A*s, any student taking Russian at that school this year is likely to receive an A*. If all received Es, that same student would probably receive an E. This is completely untethered from the ability of the student and the effort they might have put into their studies and, as a result, hardly a fair indication of their abilities. Ofqual has suggested that it will be sensitive to small group bias but how?
  • A related problem will impact on good students at underperforming schools. If a school has consistently achieved at a level below that of its most capable student in 2020, that student might find his or her grades are lower than they would otherwise have been. Ofqual has indicated that on no occasion will schools be allowed to intercede on behalf of students who might be caught out in this way.
  • Some candidates will not be able to provide the information required to receive a grade this year. If there is no record of their prior attainment, this cannot be taken into consideration. If they are taking exams at an external centre, who can provide a prediction and in what way would a class rank be meaningful? For such a student, previous school performance might also be of limited relevance. This will have a huge impact on home-schooled students and those who are resitting A’ levels as an external candidate. These candidates will possibly not receive an A’ level this summer and will have to take the autumn exams (see below).
  • There are an estimated 34 schools in the UK that cannot provide the required information for prior attainment and school performance because they are new. Unless allowances are made, their students will leave school without A’ levels.

There is plentiful scope for things to go wrong so what rights will students and parents have to challenge the results if they feel they are unfair or if they present an obstacle to a student’s onwards journey into higher education?

There are no grounds to appeal the results unless there is a clear administrative error or the wrong data has been used to calculate an assessment. If the process has been followed correctly then all grades will stand. For students who are unhappy with their results there will be an opportunity to sit exams in autumn of 2020 in those subjects where they feel their grades were unfair. If a student takes this opportunity and their examined grade is below their assessed grade they will be allowed to keep the assessed grade although they would certainly hope that any difference between the two would be in the opposite direction. There are no dates set for these exams yet but is to be envisaged that they would happen about 6-8 weeks after A’ level results day. As students might possibly not have undertaken any study or revision since March this year, how likely is it that students could prepare themselves for these exams in such a limited timeframe? What resources within schools would be available to them bearing in mind teachers’ workloads in preparing for full-scale reopening this September?

Assuming the exams in autumn happen as anticipated, students who improve their grades sufficiently might be in a position to start university in the UK from January 2021 but there are no guarantees on offer. I would imagine this would depend very much on new enrolments this October and whether these are significantly below expectations.

What does all this mean to admissions officers in international universities?

  • There is no comparison between a student who receives AAA this year and one who receives AAA in an ordinary year.
  • The reliability of the grades that a student receives will depend on the size of their school and the number of students in the whole country who have taken the same A’ level subjects as them.
  • The grades that a student receives might actually be determined by the hard work of previous cohorts of students at their school and lazy students might find themselves doing better than expected or vice versa.
  • Students at schools that do not neatly fit in to the assessment criteria or students who have a non-standard pathway through UK schools will be severely disadvantaged unless some, as yet unknown, adjustment can be made by Ofqual.

As a result, strictly enforcing entry requirements defined in grades makes almost no sense this year. It is probable that British universities will admit students who do not receive the grades they expected if they possibly can. The sooner we can accept that this year’s students have A’ levels and move on the better.

A far bigger issue, in my opinion, is that this year’s students have probably done no work since March; they have definitely missed out on the intensive deep learning that comes from exam revision. Reintegrating them into the world of academic learning is likely to be a  challenge and it might be difficult for this year’s students to hit the ground running. Getting them up to speed as quickly as possible will be desirable and perhaps university teaching and assessment will need to adapt to make sure this happens. It is likely that British-educated students this year will benefit from a rude awakening upon arrival at university, particularly if they find themselves in classes with students who actually had to take end of high school exams in their own countries.

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The worst case scenario post-Brexit moves a step closer

Screenshot_2020-06-24 Student Support in England Written statement - HCWS310

With the deadline for extending the transition period arriving next week it was inevitable that some announcement regarding tuition fees and student finance would be forthcoming. While the written statement from The Minister of State for Universities refers specifically to EU nationals wanting to study in the UK from 2021 onwards the principle of reciprocity means that there is a very good chance that British students within the EU26 (Ireland is different) will be treated along similar lines.

To summarise, EU nationals who are neither Irish nor have settled status in the UK will have to pay international fees from 2021/22 onwards. They will also lose their access to student loans to cover the tuition fees. This is at least a logically consistent argument – post departure why should a French national be treated any different than a Mexican, for example?

What does this mean for British students looking to go to universities elsewhere in the EU (except Ireland)? Well, it does not explicitly mean anything. We will need to wait for guidelines from each individual member state to outline their intentions. One country, The Netherlands, has already been very clear on this point and the situation for British students there will mirror exactly that of Dutch students coming to UK universities from 2021 onwards. I imagine that other countries will shortly post their post-Brexit positions and that they will broadly similar.

I wouldn’t call what follows “advice” for British students looking at studying in the EU from 2021 onwards but these observations might be useful:

1.If at all possible, acquire a different EU passport before studying. If you can get an EU passport but you won’t have it in time to apply to university, the feedback that we have been receiving is that EU universities will be responsive to your changing your nationality midway through your degree although this is ordinarily to be discouraged.

2. If you or members of your immediate family can establish residency in the EU country of your choice before the end of the transition period (currently 31st December 2020) it is possible that you could guarantee your right to treatment as an EU national in perpetuity. This would have to be in the country where you intend to study. I doubt you could move to France to protect your rights at a Spanish university, for example.

3. Private universities often charge the same fees for EU and non-EU nationals. Fees for medical and dental degrees within the EU will be largely unchanged although your right to means-tested fees might disappear.

4. Some countries in the EU do not currently differentiate between domestic and international students when setting fees. Therefore, you will see no change in the tuition fee you would pay. These countries tend to have fewer Bachelor’s degrees taught in English, or entry requirements that are difficult for British-educated students to meet. Current examples include Spain and most of Germany. This is subject to change, however.

5. Even if you have to pay full international fees at EU universities, these will often still be lower than £9,250 per year. You will have to do without UK student loans and all other automatic rights to EU funding will cease.

6. In some rare instances you might find it easier to gain a place at extremely competitive European universities as it is likely that British students will no longer be competing with EU nationals but with all other students instead. We have identified a handful of examples in Italy where this might be the case.

7. None of this has anything to do with Erasmus. That will fall apart in an entirely different way. All we can say is that British students attending at a British or indeed any EU university would no longer be eligible for Erasmus funding if they were to study abroad at another EU university as part of their degree. It is possible that this will change as the countries involved in Erasmus are not exclusively members of the EU and EEA. However, it will require sensible, adult negotiation so I would predict that things will go horribly wrong before possibly being reconfigured along their current lines.

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Introducing the International HE Webinar Series

The ongoing lockdown of UK and international high schools doesn’t change that fact that students need advice, support and guidance in the same way as they do every year. With this in mind, because we cannot physically visit schools, we have developed our own series of webinars. In each of these sessions we will be joined by a representative of an international university and occasionally one of their British students.

With this in mind, our first three events will focus on:

1. The Netherlands – Everything you need to know about going Dutch in 2021!

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We will be joined by Naomi Eustace of University of Groningen on Wednesday 10th June and again on Tuesday 16th June, at 15:00 on both days.

These webinars will be of most use to those students who have already thought about applying in 2021 but will certainly be helpful to anyone who has already considered that this might be one of their options. Please click on the dates above to sign up to the event that is best for you.

2. Study in the USA – Sensible, affordable routes to US higher education

Gouresh Kamble GRCC

This is not the webinar for those wanting scholarships to the Ivy League. We are far more interested in helping those students who have a desire to study in the USA but also an awareness that there is more to that country’s higher education system than a handful of famous universities. Having said that, there is nothing to say that you might not end up there if you were to start on the pathway we outline in this webinar.

Jelle Draper, European Representative of Green River College, as well as one of their former international students, will discuss some of the ways in which you can take advantage of current global uncertainty to gain a US degree in a cost-effective and timely manner.

Join Jelle and me (Mark Huntington of A Star Future) on the webinar on Wednesday 17th June at 15:00. Places are limited and this one will reach capacity!

3. Study Dentistry in Spain

uem photo

This webinar will discuss several of the English-taught options available for British students in Spain. In recent years we have been very successful in getting places for British students at Spanish dental schools and they are now graduating and returning to start their careers in the UK.

We fully appreciate that studying in Spain is often seen as a second-choice for those who cannot get places in the UK but that does not mean these are second-rate options, far from it. Also, it is just as necessary to do your homework when thinking about going abroad as it is when planning your UK choices. In order to make sure you have as much information as possible, this webinar will give you the chance to learn from A Star Future as well as Elisa Acquadro of Universidad Europea de Madrid. We are also hoping to be joined by a current student at Universidad Catolica de Valencia.

This webinar takes place on Thursday 18th June at 15:00.

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Which are the best universities in Europe for studying in English?

In the first of an occasional series of YouTube videos we explore the Top 50 European universities in non-English speaking Europe and what they can offer undergraduate students.

While it is perfectly natural to begin a search for the right university by looking for the “best” universities, the tools students usually reach for to do this are not always the most enlightening.

At this stage it is perhaps impossible to wish away the existence of league tables and rankings and, to a certain extent, they can be helpful and informative. However, they do not give a full picture of university life and even if they did, the insight they provide is meaningless if you cannot study there in a language you already speak, usually English.

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#FacingChange – The Prague College Webinar on Advising Students in the age of Covid-19

Earlier this week we were one of the invited speakers in Prague College’s webinar on advising students about international higher education in the time of Covid-19. You can now view the entire webinar online.

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How to advise students on international education in a time of lockdown?

Prague College webinarThe current Covid-19 crisis has thrown up many challenges to our way of life, particularly in any field that involves international travel. Many of the assumptions regarding distance and freedom of movement have been overturned and it is too soon to know what the future will look like in many countries.

Higher education has become one of the most significant global activities in recent years and is thus heavily exposed to this upheaval. Aside from geopolitical and financial issues it is important to remember that it is students who will be the first to experience the new reality of university education. How can we best advise them in this period of uncertainty?

Prague College, an independent university in the Czech Republic offering English-taught degrees, has teamed up with some of its global partners, including A Star Future, to organise a webinar as part of its #FacingChange series of events that was already scheduled to accompany the 2019-20 academic year.

This webinar is for all people advising high school leavers on their university choices for September 2020 during the time of Covid-19 and will feature perspectives from the UK, other European countries and the USA. It will address the following topics and will hopefully provide insight to anyone responsible for managing the transition from a disrupted school education to a disrupted start to university.

(1) How does the Covid-19 pandemic affect choice and opportunity for studying on English-taught undergraduate programmes in Europe? In the UK? In the US?

(2) How will the 2020 academic year be taught and how to advise students given the wide range of possible health, travel and teaching implications?

(3) Understanding the risks and opportunities related to going abroad for university next year.

The webinar takes place on Tuesday 12th May at 15:00 CET. Please register to attend here.

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Watch our study abroad presentation on YouTube.

For the duration of school closures in the United Kingdom you will be able to watch one of our presentations online. Studying abroad takes time to plan so there is still lots that students and families need to think about even if there are lots of additional unknown factors right now.

You can always contact us with any questions you might have. We’re happy to help if we possibly can.

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A Star Future and the Coronavirus

Given the current situation regarding Covid-19 in the United Kingdom, and the fact that at this time schools are still largely open, we have had to take the decision to cancel all of our visits this side of the Easter holidays. We will take a view on our visits after Easter in a few weeks but at this time we are expecting continued interruption. Clearly, at this stage it is not sensible for us or anyone to be visiting school after school.

We will continue to assist students and teachers in the UK remotely and with that in mind we are happy to draw your attention to the following services.

Last week we took the precaution of recording one of our school presentations. We have made this available on YouTube for the duration of the current situation. We are happy for this link to be shared with students and parents. The video lasts for about 32 minutes and if I were able to edit it professionally there are a couple of parts I would have taken out but in general it gives a fair impression of our regular presentation. I would be happy for this to be played as a school assembly or provided as a link for students to use individually. It might be possible for us to be available online via Skype, FaceTime or Zoom to answer any questions at the end the presentation and as our digital learning skills become more advanced we could look at delivering presentations remotely. As we will be spending a lot more time at our desks you can probably expect a quicker reply to any questions you or your students might have.

We would also like to draw your attention to the existing resources on the A Star Future website advisors’ area. Here you can find guides to application processes at European universities as well as guidance about finding the right university for many subjects.

For students who are looking at studying medicine, dentistry and veterinary medicine abroad from this September, we appreciate that the current situation is unsettling. We are working on the assumption that these options will exist but it is highly likely that their entrance exams will be delayed or even cancelled altogether.

Currently, nearly all of our university partners are closed but we are in regular contact by email. If you have questions during this period of enforced avoidance of contact it should still be possible to obtain answers for you.

We look forward to being back out on the road just as soon as possible but for now we believe the only sensible course of action is to restrict our movement.

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Brexit Update – The meaning of transition

It is getting repetitive saying that we don’t know what will happen after Brexit regarding the terms and conditions British students will face in the European Union. However, we are still waiting for any clear indication of our intended direction of travel towards the sunlit uplands…

The British government has made noises about the future of the Erasmus+ programme, particularly in reference to student exchanges. The Prime Minister has stated that there is no intention for the UK to withdraw from Erasmus but parliament voted down an amendment to ensure that we stay in.  As such, we only have the government’s word on this. This is not tremendously reassuring.

For British students intending to complete their full degree abroad we have some recent information from the Dutch government that updates its previous advice.

Now that we have departed from the European Union (officially if not in any actual meaningful way yet) the guidelines now make reference to the end of the transition period. Previously, all announcements had been based on the departure date.

The Dutch government has offered an assurance to all British nationals that if they are resident in the Netherlands before the end of the transition period (currently 31st December 2020) they will be able to carry over their EU rights for the duration of their stay in the Netherlands, theoretically permanently. What this means is that students starting in September 2020 are guaranteed EU fees (currently €2,143 with minor annual increases) for the duration of their studies. If a British citizen is registered as living in the Netherlands before the end of transition they would also be able to benefit from EU fees if they were to start their studies at some point in the future.

British nationals resident in the Netherlands before the end of transition will also be able to benefit from Dutch student finance as they currently do, meaning tuition loans for all degrees and maintenance loans in some circumstances. The terms and conditions regarding Dutch student finance for British nationals is spelled out in full on our website.

We can now be certain that British students looking at Dutch universities for 2020 will be safe from any Brexit-related changes to their rights. This extends beyond tuition fees and means the right to work and reside in The Netherlands would also be protected. (A lengthy absence from the Netherlands at any point might see the withdrawal of these rights.) We therefore advise any student who is in a position to apply to university this year that they should not delay. Unless they have already planned to use a gap year to establish their residency in the European Union, they should cancel those plans and go to university this year. The deadline for most degrees at Dutch universities is 1st May so there is still time to apply.

It is possible that transition will be extended. If so, we would expect the principles outlined above to be extended as well. However, there is no obligation on the part of the Dutch government to do this. Clearly it is a pragmatic solution but Dutch patience might wear thin if there are endless extensions.

As to what happens after transition, the Dutch government is clear: unless there is an agreement regarding student mobility in the EU (something which cannot be said to be near the top of the UK’s agenda even though many British universities are crying out for it), British students will be third-party nationals and will have to pay the higher, international tuition fees with no loans available. Eligibility for scholarships will improve but that means the fees a British student pay will only be knowable on  a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately for current Year 12 students they are likely to be the first to experience this new reality.

As with all the Brexit-related advice we offer here and on our websites, we cannot take responsibility for its accuracy. These are merely our informed opinions.

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What next with tuition fees in the Netherlands for British students?

There was a general election last week. That is all I really want to say about it but unfortunately there are likely to be some consequences that need addressing. Needless to say I have already been asked many times about what this means for British students looking to go to Dutch universities and the answer is still that I haven’t a clear answer but I do have some indications. Luckily, for students already at Dutch universities there is nothing to worry about but for those looking to start in the near future, there is some indication of what they might pay but no indication as to whether they will be able to avoid a “cliff-edge” at some currently unknown point during their studies.

As pointed out in our previous blog post, the Dutch government has guaranteed EU-fees status, and access to finance, to all Brits who started before the last exit day of 31st October ( the withdrawal date referred to on the Dutch government’s website ie. not the end of the transition period) so those who are already there will be absolutely fine as long as they don’t interrupt their studies for any reason. It is possible that they would be willing to extend this to anyone who starts before the next exit day but that is now pretty much guaranteed to be 31st January 2020 and therefore of no use to even the small number of UK students who start in the spring semester. However, if a student is currently on a gap year and planning to start in September 2020, they could guarantee themselves EU fees and funding if they establish residency in the Netherlands before 31st January 2020. I doubt there are many people who could do this but it would remove any uncertainty based on the Dutch government’s current advice.

Tuition fees definitely will not go up during the transition period when to all intents and purposes we are still in the EU (even though we will be pretending, or at least be able to say, that we have left). The current agreed transition period expiry is 31st December 2020 although that was based on a withdrawal date of March 2019 and even then hopelessly optimistic in terms of completing the necessary negotiation of any new relationship. Once the transition period ends, tuition fees and access to student finance in The Netherlands could end overnight for British nationals but there is no reason to assume that they must. The Dutch government has been very accommodating and understanding so far but now that there is a clear direction of travel based on last week’s election result, I think that we can say that our departure is not up for debate any more. It is going to happen and other EU countries will now start preparing accordingly.

The Dutch government’s own website states that “British nationals who come to the Netherlands after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and wish to commence studies will be viewed as third-country nationals, []. The type of residence permit they hold will determine whether they are entitled to student finance and whether they pay statutory tuition fees or institutional fees.” I have no idea what would qualify a British student for a residence permit that would ensure lower fees, or higher fees for that matter but this is clearly something I will seek to clarify.

I think there is no chance that the withdrawal date will change but every chance that transition could be extended by a year or even longer. It is theoretically possible a student could start in September 2020 and have graduated before the trade negotiations have even ended (indeed this is likely for one-year Master’s students starting in 2020). However, students cannot plan for that eventuality. I think if the withdrawal date shifts to after September 2020, the behaviour of the Dutch government so far indicates that students would be guaranteed EU conditions for the duration of their studies but there is no guarantee that this would be the case based on the transition-period-expiry-date. This depends on the type of residency a student would have (referred to above) and the precise outcome of the negotiation of the future UK-EU deal.

It is possible that as part of the new relationship agreed with the EU tuition fees for Brits and EU nationals might be maintained at their current levels within the UK and EU. This is the case for certain non-EU countries already, eg. Norway, Switzerland. However, this would not be something the British side is looking for in negotiations (if Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement is still an accurate guide to intentions) and it is something they would have to concede. I cannot see what circumstances might bring this about but I suppose it could be considered a possibility. I am fairly sure some British universities will be lobbying for something of this nature as they could stand to lose almost all of their EU student numbers and a large proportion of their diversity, both of which will immediately impact on their global standing.

For students who are looking to start a 3-year Bachelor’s degree in September 2020 the only clear advice I can offer is do not delay, don’t be tempted by taking a gap year and seeing how things work out. They will almost certainly be worse. Students might have to assess the cost of their education on the basis that tuition fees might increase dramatically but if this happens in the third year, for example, the average annual cost might still be manageable. Obviously, students for whom such a rise in fees (and loss of student finance) would be a complete calamity will have to exercise caution when choosing whether to go to a Dutch university. Such students have my sympathy but that is all anyone can offer them. I suppose it is possible that British students will be eligible for scholarships in the future (and those who already have a non-EU passport might want to investigate whether this would be helpful for 2020 admissions although please bear in mind the earlier application deadline for non-EU students, usually 1st April for research universities) but the precise offering for British students is likely to be unknown for some time.

That is all I can say for now. Obviously, no one knows anything for sure just yet but I think the one good thing about last week is that this lack of clarity will not last much longer. Obviously, any good that comes from this is extremely likely to be outweighed by the actual consequences.





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