Decline in university standards for science

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The Independent Online
STANDARDS of entry for science degree courses are lower than they were 20 years ago even in long-established universities, a new study of 750,000 A-level students has shown.

The research from Brunel University reveals that universities have had to lower standards because not enough bright sixth-formers are choosing to read maths and science. Researchers found that on average, the requirements for entry to science courses in old universities had fallen by about half an A-level grade.

While popular subjects like medicine and dentistry had not dropped their requirements, engineering and technology had. Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson suggest that the fall in standards for all universities will be greater because the former polytechnics generally take students with lower A-level grades.

The figures from the study, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, were compiled from a trawl through the records of all A-level entrants to the old universities between 1975 and 1993 when the polytechnics became universities. They show that the pattern of A-level study has changed dramatically. During that time, the number of A-level entrants to the old universities has grown by around 64 per cent but the number studying exclusively maths and science subjects at A-level has risen by just 0.1 per cent.

By contrast, the group of sixth-formers studying a mixture of arts and science at A-level, which was tiny in the Seventies, is up by 22 per cent and the group studying non-science subjects has increased by 59 per cent. The shortfall in science applicants has been made up by students taking a mixture of arts and science at A-level.

In 1975, four out of five entrants to science courses came from the maths and science group. Now two out of five come from the mixed group. However, the students with the highest grades in the mixed group tend to choose social sciences such as economics and business studies rather than science.

Dr Robinson, deputy director of Brunel's centre for education and employment research, said: "The system does seem to have compromised a bit on standards. The anecdotal evidence that there are not enough scientists and that they are of poorer quality is based on reality. Before we had an elite maths and science group entering university. Now we are seeing a much wider range of people." The findings have important implications, she says. The need to persuade more sixth-formers to study both arts and science is urgent.

Ministers have just announced a new exam to be taken after one year in the sixth form which aims to persuade young people to study five subjects for a year, but it has postponed plans for an over-arching diploma to include both arts, science and vocational subjects.

Dr Robinson said: "The restrictive three-subject A-level course is counter- productive to science. The Government's latest proposals do not go far enough. We need a five-subject structure which goes over two years." Meanwhile, universities need to take into account the fact that they are dealing with students with a wider range of ability.