Not enough students for maths or science

Record numbers have gained university places this year, but traditional subjects have seen a shortfall of applicants
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The Independent Online

Many universities were still reporting vacancies in traditional subjects such as maths, sciences and languages yesterday - despite a record number of students being placed in courses in the first two days following the publication of A-level results.

A survey of university admissions departments by The Independent on Sunday revealed that students were being snapped up for places "exceptionally quickly".

This year's record A-level pass rate - coupled with a rise in the percentage of A-grade passes - meant that far more youngsters were obtaining the grades they had provisionally been set by universities. Just over 248,000 places were confirmed on the basis of A-level results.

However, the difficulties in recruiting students to traditional subjects like sciences and languages will rekindle the row over whether A-level students are opting for "easy" subjects - such as psychology and media studies - in the hope of gaining better grades.

Surrey University, for instance, said it had "generally not many vacancies" but found that recruitment to some language courses - not French and Spanish - and science and engineering was slower than usual. At Cardiff University, the main vacancies were in physics, chemistry and religious studies. The calibre of students coming through clearing was said to be very high - many with A and B grades.

Sheffield Hallam University reported that courses in law and psychology - the two subjects that saw the biggest rise in the number of candidates at A-level, with psychology increasing by 21.6 per cent and law by 20.6 - had filled up within hours of the results being declared. Most of its vacancies were on computing and business courses.

At London's City University, the most vacancies were in engineering. The university was lowering its entry requirements in engineering and computing, but said that overall there was a "very high calibre of student applying through clearing".

Leeds University said that many departments had filled all vacancies. Any vacancies that did exist were mainly in science and engineering.

Earlier this week, John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, claimed that students were opting for subjects like psychology and media studies because it was perceived to be "easier" to achieve top-grade passes in them.

He urged Mike Tomlinson, the former chief schools inspector who is heading the Government's inquiry into the education of 14- to 19-year-olds, to look at ways of introducing a common standard across all subjects. However, David Miliband, the school standards minister, hit back, saying it was time to stop "carping" about record A-level pass rates and celebrate students' achievements instead.

According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions System (Ucas), a record 270,417 students had had offers of places confirmed on the first day of clearing.

Are exams really getting easier?

Q: Should we be celebrating this year's record A-level results or has the exam just become easier to pass?

A: Certainly the youngsters who passed should be celebrating - and there is no evidence that standards have been "dumbed down". International experts have studied past and present A-level papers and said they cannot detect any sign that they have become easier.

Q: Are this year's record results down to students opting for "easier" subjects - like psychology and media studies - and abandoning traditional subjects like science and languages?

A: There is a definite trend towards the more modern subjects - the number of psychology candidates rose by 21.6 per cent this year. There may be a perception that these are easier but a study of the psychology paper convinced me that it was asking probing essay-style questions. The row over whether some exams are easier than others has, however, masked a more serious problem - the fact that we are not encouraging enough youngsters to study science and modern languages.

Q: Three candidates from state schools with 17 grade-A passes between them have been rejected for places by Trinity College, Cambridge. Does Oxbridge still favour the elite?

A: Both Oxford and Cambridge are making tremendous efforts - through summer schools and admissions fairs - to try to rid themselves of their elitist image. There is tremendous competition for places but the fact that these three students have all been turned down will enhance the perception of elitism.