Education: Is it too easy to get into university?

Universities are accepting low A-level grades from some students. But there is a method behind it
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The Independent Online
So, university is just for the super-bright sixth formers with the string of high A-level grades? Think again. This autumn two Es or even A-level failure has been enough to gain a place at university. Admissions tutors with places to fill were prepared to offer places on low grades, or even a "year zero" catch-up course for those whose exam results really slumped.

And, according to previously unpublished figures produced by UCAS, although the average A-level grades achieved by university entrants last year was just over three Cs, there were huge variations in grades actually accepted by academics, with a C and a D enough to open the door to a university course at the bottom end of the scale.

But does it matter? Are elite university courses being diluted by poorly qualified students, or are universities simply being responsible in responding to demand, and offering a genuine chance to study to those who did not make it into the ranks of the favoured few? Many academics believe good students make a good course. Others point to evidence that highly motivated students, even those with no formal entry qualifications, can get first class degrees.

The entrance grades eventually accepted are often determined during the annual clearing process, which matches unfilled places with available candidates. Clearance is higher education's annual trading house. Students are desperate to find a suitable course that will accept their grades, while universities have to meet their recruitment targets, or face the resulting financial penalty.

Top of the tree are the traditionally hard to enter subjects of veterinary science, medicine and dentistry, all of which attract students with average A-level scores running a whisker below three As. Traditionally popular subjects like history and English also score strongly, as do single honours physics, all attracting students with roughly BBC at A-level.

At the other end of the scale librarianship, albeit with just two students recorded for its purpose in the 1997 UCAS analysis, scored 11 points (roughly a C and a D), and secondary education degrees could be had for just 13.7 points, which equates to slightly better than a C and two Ds.

The averages in the UCAS analysis hide a wide range of entry grades, from the high flying three-A candidates to those who have scratched two A-levels or an advanced GNVQ pass.

Should students care, as long as they can find a place at a university they like? Yes, according to Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University. He believes that the calibre of students on a course is crucial to its quality.

"Probably the major determinant of the quality of a degree is the quality of the people who decide to enter it," he said. "A-levels are used to measure the spectrum of ability, but they are also a way of rationing places. If you have courses which are very difficult to fill institutions will be finding themselves in the business of marketing rather than selecting.

"We used to have a very small system with a high threshold at O-level and A-level. Not many people got into university and not many people failed while they were there.

"We have created a much bigger system so we are giving lots more people an opportunity in higher education, which I would welcome. But if we are making it relatively easier to get into university we must expect some people to get there and find at the end of the day they cannot cope with it, or decide that it's not for them."

It also makes it very difficult to sustain the argument that a degree is a degree is a degree," Professor Smithers concludes.

That is not an argument accepted by many of the new universities, which have been at the forefront of widening participation in higher education - often to students with low A-level grades, or no traditional entrance qualifications at all. They believe that they are offering real opportunities for a higher education of the highest standard to people who would otherwise miss out.

They have the Government on their side. Baroness Blackstone, the higher education minister, told vice chancellors last month to be more imaginative in selecting students. "Are you missing promising, perhaps even brilliant, candidates by not being imaginative enough in the way you select people?" she asked.

She went on: "The traditional post-16 curriculum was designed for a world which no longer exists, a world in which higher education was the preserve of a highly specialised elite."

A report to be published by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals next month will also propose A-level discounts for students from deprived backgrounds as part of a package of measures to bring more working class teenagers into university education. Many universities believe such recruitment policies, with the right support, can produce good honours graduates.

More than half of all full time students at the University of East London are over 21, many having come into university with no formal qualifications at all, either via access courses or through direct entry. Analysis of entrance figures and graduation figures suggest they do as well - or better - than their counterparts with A-levels to their name.

Dr Ron McDougall, management information co-ordinator at UEL, found 7.6 per cent of graduates in 1997 who started with no formal qualifications left with first class degrees. By contrast only 4.8 per cent of those who started off with A-levels ended up with a first.

He said: "We take on students with no traditional qualifications, and in some cases with pretty unimpressive qualifications at all, but we get them a degree in the end, and there is nothing to say that our students make poorer graduates than those from any other university. It is not the case that you need good A-levels to get a degree, so long as you have something else - maturity and experience."

At the University of Hertfordshire this year, admissions tutors were offering a "year zero" course to students who had missed out on the three Cs at A-level required for entry onto the university's nationally accredited bachelor of engineering course. Others were offered alternative courses, such as engineering management, on as little as eight points - the equivalent of two Ds, according to Penny O'Callaghan, assistant registrar.

Two Ds was also the university's rule-of-thumb cut off for students hoping for a place on a humanities course during clearing. But, Ms O'Callaghan said, low grades or high, students did not have an easy ride. Attitude and enthusiasm were the qualities which won places.

"They have to be very convincing if their A-level grades were very low," she said. "There would be problems with somebody who has set their heart on medicine and does not get a place, even if they have three As."

She continued: "They might be desperate to get away from their parents and embark on university life, but we still have to give them quite a hard time to make sure they are not going to mess up.

"It's also important to understand why someone got low grades. There's a lot of counselling. Students may have low grades because they chose the wrong A-level subjects."


The Highest

1 Veterinary science 29.2

2 Other ancient languages 28.6

3 Pre-clinical medicine 28.5

4 Pre-clinical dentistry 26.6

5 Other modern languages25.4

6 Classics 24.3

7 Chinese 23.8

8 Latin 23.4

9 Pharmacy 23.3

10 Mathematics 23

10 Japanese 23

12 Opthalmics 22.8

12 Physics 22.8

12 Electrical engineering 22.8

15 Classical Greek 22

16 History and philosophy

of science 21.9

17 Spanish 21.8

17 Combinations of languages 21.8

17 Combined or

general science 21.8

17 Biochemistry 21.6

The Lowest

1 Librarianship 11

2 Other mathematical

and informatics science 11.7

3 Social work 12.4

4 Minerals technology 12.4

5 Industrial relations 13.6

6 Secondary education 13.7

6 Comparative literature 13.7

6 Institutional

management 13.7

9 Other topics in

education 13.8

9 Building and

construction 13.8

11 Ceramics and glass 14

12 Tourism 14.2

12 Land and property

management 14.2

14 Computer systems

engineering 14.4

15 Nursery and infant

teacher training 14.6

16 Primary teacher

training 14.7

16 Radiography 14.7

18 Creative therapies 14.8

19 Infant teacher training 14.9

UCAS figures for 1997 entry. Points are based on A-level grades or their equivalent. A = 10 B = 8 C = 6 D = 4 E = 2