Cheated by the algorithm? How to fight back

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Photo credit: Ketut Subiyanto

Your child has just got their A-level results. Are you happy as Gavin Williamson crowing on Twitter about how much better your child has done compared to their predicted grades? Or is your child devastated that their predicted high grades have been downgraded, stripping them of their university places at Oxford, Cambridge and many of the top research universities?

Either way, you should be worried. Let’s take Harry. He was predicted BCD but got 2As and an A*. Unless Harry did exceptionally well at GCSE level, he is likely to struggle at university. Indeed, don’t be surprised if he drops out in the first term or wants to change direction come next September. GCSE results often give a good idea of how well a student will do in university exams. His friend Liam was predicted BCE based on mediocre course work. But Liam is someone who excels in exams and has 11 As and A*s at GCSE level. He’s likely to do well at any university but now can’t find a place.

Then take Chantelle from Whitehawk, predicted AAA but downgraded to BCC, and Hannah from Roedean, ecstatic at her unexpected three As instead of BCD.

Grand scale theft is suspected of young people’s hopes, dreams and futures. It’s not just that there’s country-wide fears about a postcode lottery determining results regardless of effort, achievement and hard work. There’s more than a hint of suspicion that when the results were allocated to individuals automatically – in other words by a computer algorithm – they were socially engineered. How?

Behind every bit of computer code used was a human. Behind every algorithm, is a set of requirements that a human has chosen. Someone will have created the A-level algorithm to discriminate among people based on certain criteria. That is legitimate and what algorithms do, whether you buy something like a rail ticket from a vending machine, get stuck in a long or short passport queue at Gatwick, or can only win tokens in a computer game to get to the next level.

But it seems that the A-level algorithm was designed to discriminate on the basis of criteria that any parent would deem grossly unfair and unjust. Postcode, your child’s school ranking, class size and the school’s past performance in A-levels may have been among the criteria used.

Anxiety that such ignorant, irresponsible, and unethical criteria may have been built into the algorithm is justified. That they may have been the basis for selecting this academic year’s cohort of university entrants suggests that neither a privacy nor an ethical impact assessment was done as the algorithm was created. It is a worry that statisticians were asked to sign a five-year non-disclosure agreement but thankfully refused. The question is why have such a NDA unless there is something to hide? Could this algorithm be repurposed and tweaked for future exams? Or are the procurement requirements to be hidden from public gaze until after the next general election? Something stinks.

More immediately what can students cheated by design do? First, the students should email or call the university admissions office and admissions tutor in their chosen department. In the past, tutors interviewed all students face-to-face or virtually and made offers based on their personal assessment of the student’s potential.

This could mean disregarding predicted lower grades. It could mean making a lower than standard offer to students from impoverished and/or challenging backgrounds. Above all, it would mean that a rational, considered decision would be made by a human being, not a string of computer code. Even when universities were forced, by the impact of government cuts, to set high and inflexible entry offers, there was sometimes wriggle room. A tutor can advise whether there is a similar course that would get the student a place in a cognate department with different entry grade requirements.

Second, if those options have been exhausted, students can look further afield. Scotland and Northern Ireland are popular. But what if all those places are full? What if they do not wish to go to Canada, New Zealand or Australia to study?

Many European universities teach in English as well as their native languages. English is the common language of science and the language used for international collaboration regardless of which subject you study. UK universities have links with those universities under the Erasmus and Jean Monnet schemes. They can be found by looking at the UK universities’ courses. Think about going to do a degree there in October.

The admissions systems differ from those in the UK. Not all operate quotas. Contact the departments and admissions offices. Where to start? Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Denmark. Fees vary but are lower than in the UK. Teaching differs from in the UK but that is no reason not to go. There are wonderful universities, inspirational teaching and research, rich cultures and opportunities available to students in Europe.

This step, of course, has just got harder. The government that created the A-level algorithm is the same government that said no to freedom of movement and thereby ended our freedom to go and study as part of British degrees, if we so chose, at a partner EU university. By ending freedom of movement, it also took away our automatic rights to move to any EU state in the same way we might move from Cardiff to Brighton, and retain our rights to free health care. This means that students may have to deal with more bureaucracy as they won’t have the Erasmus visa scheme to rely on and will be treated like foreign students from any non-EU country. And they will have to take out private health insurance because ending freedom of movement means ending our right to use the European Health Insurance card.

When the UK co-created the EU’s single market, it created freedom of movement for people within the EU. Students from all EU states can move wherever they like inside the EU. The UK government chose to prevent Brits doing that and limited them by design to moving around in the UK only. Hardly the way to inspire our young people. It is not the way to create opportunity or make Britain great. It closes doors at the very time they must be opened. It is short-sighted, ignorant and unjust.

Just because it is possible to do something, doesn’t mean it should be done. When the intention and result skews opportunities against social mobility, it harms everyone. Not just the individual student denied and deprived of rights their parents may have dreamt of, even if they never exercised them.

My own father left school at 14 and took up an apprenticeship, but had the imagination to think that his own children, including his daughters, should work hard, get a good education and have better chances than he did. He never understood what university and polytechnics did but he was sure that if his children could get into comprehensive schools and then go to university, their chances of accessing better jobs would improve.

The A-level algorithm has just robbed young people of this. It seems it was procured by the privileged and privately educated to benefit the privileged and privately educated. This is social engineering and manipulation in the digital age which aggravates pernicious discrimination. It is the most recent face of cheating by design. Last week it was A-level students. Who’s next?

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