Personally Speaking: Why we need broad-minded universities

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The Independent Online
SO THE Government has opted for breadth for sixth-form students. I am a sixth former and I have tried to go for breadth. So I suppose in principle I support the Government. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to me that it's going to be that simple.

My A-level combination of biology, chemistry, English and history is generally considered unusual. People like to be able to categorise students as "artists" or "scientists". Although I was advised against taking on the extra work of a fourth A-level, it seemed that I had to in order to remain eligible for both a science and an arts degree.

The choice of taking four A-levels did not, however, completely solve my problems. When I started thinking seriously about my university options, I was undecided whether to apply for medicine or English. But I found my subject choice had already ruled me out from consideration by eight of 15 medical schools, notably at Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol. It seems they are not interested unless I have three science A-levels (where is their respect for breadth?).

Ideally, I would have liked to apply to three places to study medicine and three to study English, through Ucas, but I was told that this would be eyed with suspicion by all parties. It is, therefore, currently seen as a weakness rather than a strength to have breadth of interest, and, for the real success of the system, this must change.

Can universities not select students for their breadth of knowledge rather than for their depth of knowledge in a narrow range of subject areas? Perhaps English could be seen as an asset to medical applicants rather than a blight on their scientific knowledge (after all, doctors are notorious for their illegible handwriting!). Surely university was intended for in-depth study, and it is more appropriate there than it is to 16-year olds, many of whom have little idea of future careers.

So will these problems be solved by the Government's proposals? Probably not. Since I approve of breadth, I don't want to sound too negative. But isn't the proposed system of five AS-levels in the first year of the sixth form, dropping to three A-levels in the second, only delaying the decision to specialise? The opportunity of studying a range of subjects at a higher level never really arises since, only a year after their initial choice, students will again be faced with the necessity to restrict their options to three.

Once again, those subject choices will be dictated by what is considered "a sensible combination" and what will be thought to be acceptable to university admissions tutors.

Surely, then, nothing will really be achieved unless universities also adapt and embrace new ideas. If, under the proposed system of greater breadth, a student narrowed down his or her initial five subjects to English, chemistry and graphics he or she would undoubtedly have demonstrated great academic diversity; but what about subsequent prospects? Students will be told that few universities would consider a student to read chemistry who has taken only one science subject. Equally, a university interviewing prospective English undergraduates will be only minimally interested in their achievements in science.

Unlike children on the Continent, we have all been brought up in a culture in which we are encouraged to "give up" subjects that do not have immediate appeal.

The new proposals will not fundamentally change that, only delaying the process. I realise, however, that I am arguing for something that would have benefited me, while I also know that many of my friends did not want to study a wide range of subjects.

Insisting on variety has been avoided in the past on the grounds that we should not force people to continue with subjects they do not like. But has it been acknowledged that, under our current system and even under the proposed system, we are forcing people to discard subjects they do like (I still regret having had to give up French and maths, and I would also have liked the chance to try sociology)?

Nothing is going to change unless we as sixth-formers can be convinced that some real value is put on breadth. This can only be done either by the Government insisting on breadth throughout the sixth form, or by universities proving that they really prefer breadth to narrow specialisation.

The writer is in the sixth form at Maidstone Girls Grammar School, in Kent. She has now decided against medicine and is hoping to do an English degree at Cambridge