Economy Minister ‘working with Executive’ over pressure on university places

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The Economy Minister has said she is working with the Stormont Executive over pressure on university places.

Scores of students are expected to qualify for places at the Queen’s University and Ulster University in Northern Ireland following a major climbdown by education authorities over how this year’s A-level grades were decided.

Education Minister Peter Weir abandoned plans to use centralised standardisation following an outcry from teachers, parents and pupils over last Thursday’s results.

Teachers’ estimates will be awarded to A-level candidates unless the computer algorithm which produced the centralised score gave a higher grade.

Results are expected to inflate by more than 10% as a result.

This is expected to see a surge of applicants now qualifying for a university place.

The number of NI and EU students both universities can take is capped by Stormont as their tuition fees are partially funded by the Department for the Economy.

“The university has limited flexibility with quota controlled courses such as Medicine and Dentistry where restrictions on numbers are externally applied, although as many as possible will be accommodated. It is not yet clear if the quota for these courses will be adjusted,” the university said in a statement.

“Any applicants to quota controlled courses who meet the conditions of their offer but cannot be allocated a place for the forthcoming academic year will be provided an unconditional offer for the 2021-22 academic year.

“Furthermore, it should be noted that the university has genuine capacity restrictions in terms of teaching space, teaching staff and accommodation that have to be taken into account in order to protect the educational integrity for all of our students.

“These issues are particularly complex this year due to the need to preserve social distancing and keep our staff and students safe. It is therefore imperative that the university receives clarity on the provision of revised results and, the support that will be provided by government as soon as possible.

“The new academic year begins on the 21st September so the University needs this clarity as a matter of urgency so that it can plan effectively for the start of semester.”

Ulster University said it is “actively preparing” for the anticipated additional demand.

“Students are our absolute priority and we will be as flexible as possible in order to accommodate the maximum number of students possible within our existing funding and the additional flexibility already provided by Department for the Economy,” the university said in a statement.

“We are actively preparing for the anticipated additional demand by building in additional places for some of our most popular courses including Computer Sciences, Artificial Intelligence, Engineering, Law, Accounting, and Personalised Medicine”.

Diane Dodds responded to the calls on Tuesday morning, saying she is working with Executive colleagues.

“Our priority must be the educational interests of our young people,” she said.

“I believe that the consequences of latest decisions on A-levels must be faced up to.

“I support the universities in their assessment of the extra burdens and requirement that this will place upon them.

“Additional places and extra resources will be required and I will be working with Executive colleagues to ensure this happens as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald has urged Mr Weir and exams board CCEA to ensure grades are communicated as quickly as possible.

“It is imperative the Education Minister and CCEA now ensure that these grades are communicated to students, universities and colleges as quickly as possible to provide clarity to young people,” she said.

“The delay in adopting this approach has caused stress and anxiety for many young people and their families; it has also caused confusion and delayed the admissions process for universities and colleges.”

She added: “The Economy Minister needs to clarify what the impact of grades changes will mean for admissions and the number of places at our universities.”

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