Up to 8,000 university hopefuls have been rejected by Cambridge this year despite being expected to get at least one A* grade in their A-level exams later this month.
The university is one of the few to have insisted that applicants should be in line for at least one A* grade this year – the first year of the new grade being introduced.
Its experience puts a serious question mark over whether the introduction of the new grade will be the panacea ministers had hoped for helping the country’s most selective universities choose the brightest candidates for their most popular courses.
Applications to Cambridge University this year still increased despite the tougher entry requirement – albeit by only 0.5 per cent compared with a national average of 11.9 per cent.
In all, around 15,000 would-be students – including 3,000 from overseas –applied for the 3,300 places on offer.
As a result, just over 8,000 home grown applicants – the vast majority of whom would have been expected to get an A* grade in their exams – were turned away.
The university is now raising the prospect that its minimum entry requirements may have to be increased yet again – to two A* grades – in the future.
“We would have to be sure about the reliability of the A* grade before we did that,” said Geoff Parks, the university’s senior admissions tutor, in an interview with The Independent.
“We would have to have clear evidence of its effectiveness so it would have to be in two or three years time before we could do it.”
Dr Parks said university admissions staff had had to rely on the AS level results of potential candidates to assess whether they were in line to obtain an A* grade.
“Lots of predictions of A* grade passes didn’t have the evidence to back them up,” he said. Some schools “bumped up” their candidates’ chances – in an attempt either to give them more chance of succeeding with their applications or spurring to work harder for their exams.
"In the end, we had to say to schools we’re going to have to ignore what you predict in favour of what we know,” Dr Parks added.
This is one of the key reasons why Cambridge University is opposing Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans to revamp A-levels – which would include doing away with the end of first-year sixth-form examination.
“We still think you can get ‘deep thought’ into A-levels (which is what Mr Gove has said he wants) with an end of first year exam,” he said.
However, Dr Parks said the current system – where students sit of series of modules during their two-year course to make up their grades – was in need of reform.
“You can get to your last module knowing that you already have an A grade,” he said.
“As a result, talking an A-level is rather like Usain Bolt running a race - he’s gone so fast that in the last fifty yards he ends up waving to the crowd.
“There is evidence that some of our students were taking their foot off the gas in year 13 (when they complete their A-level course).
“It's absolutely the minority but there are some very able students who think they’ve got the job done.
“They run into a brick wall and when they get here they really struggle. They have to start upping their game again.”
Asked whether the never-ending rise in the A-level pass rate could be put down to the exam becoming easier or teachers and students becoming smarter, he replied: “It is different in its style of questions and format to years ago.
“It has had to be made more accessible to a wider range of students. It is no longer an exam for the elite to get to university.
“The questions now are more subjective – they are more accessible. There is not the same opportunity for creative expression.
“Also, the other change which I know the awarding bodies would be reluctant to admit is the ability to recruit examiners capable of marking certain types of questions.
“The more open-ended the questions, the more variability there is in the assessment. If you’ve got really difficult questions, you’ve got to have someone with great subject knowledge to assess the answers.”
This year’s exams saw for the first time a return to the more open ended questions which can better tease out a candidate’s intellectual ability.
However, the prospect of that helping university admissions staff weed out the brightest youngsters is nil until the UK moves towards what is called PQA (post-qualification application) where youngsters apply to university after they get their results rather than being awarded places on predicted outcomes.
“The chances of that happening in my lifetime are almost nil,” said Dr Parks.
“The universities say they cannot move back the start of their academic year.
“The international students want to start then and we can’t ask them to delay for another three months or they could go elsewhere.
“The schools say it will cut down the amount of time to study for the exams if they are brought forward.
“To achieve what you want, you would have to make changes right back to primary schooling to fit everything in.”
The upshot of this is that admissions tutor will be stuck with the present system for the foreseeable future.
The A* grade could help them select the brighter candidates so long as they still retain the end of first year sixth-form exam to help them assess how well youngsters will do in their final grades.
This year, Cambridge’s increase in applications was limited to 0.5 per cent compared to *** at Oxford, which eschewed using the A* grade to determine applications.
Cambridge makes the point there was some flexibility in its admissions system – some courses, for instance, asked for three A* grades, students taking double maths were exempt from it because they would have taken their first exam last year before the A* grade was introduced. In addition, in between 50 and 100 cases a year students are admitted on a lower offer because of their potential (they may have struggled in a disadvantaged school and got three A grades or have faced sickness or personal problems). Some youngsters were also admitted after sitting the International Baccalaureate rather than A-levels.
The vast majority, though, had to show they were capable of getting an A* grade in at least one of their subjects.
Meanwhile, application figures showed a 12 per cent rise at Oxford – up from 15,277 to 17, 144. When overseas students are taken out of the equation, it means that around 12,500 UK youngsters competing for just 3,000 places.
Yesterday, the Universities minister David Willetts said that individuals with “good” grades were set to miss out despite an increase in the number of undergraduate places.