'Traditional' A-levels should have higher value says minister

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The Independent Online

"Traditional" A-level subjects should be valued more highly in the race for university places, a Government minister said, as thousands of students prepared to receive exam results today.

David Willetts said that more modern subjects such as dance and media studies should not be recognised as core academic subjects.

His comments came as around 250,000 A-level students get ready to receive their exam results.

Mr Willetts told the Daily Telegraph that the points system used in university admissions "sends a very bad message to young people by implying that all A-levels have an equal chance of helping them into university".

Ucas, which processes university applications, allocates points based on the grade achieved, regardless of the subject.

Mr Willetts added: "[Ucas] are operating a massive system with more than half a million applications, but they need to signal the importance of some A-levels more than others and that message is often hidden behind a tariff point model."

He also said that work-based apprenticeships should be accepted as a way to get into university.

Concerns have been raised this year about students who fail to secure a university place and could face the daunting prospect of up to three times higher tuition fees in 2012.

Wendy Piatt, of the Russell Group, which represents leading universities, said it was not realistic to expect every student who wants to go to university to get a place.

She said: "The costs to the taxpayer of a very generous system of student loans and grants make it unrealistic to think that the country could afford to offer a properly funded university place to everyone who would like one.

"In a tight fiscal climate, maintaining the quality of the student experience must be a greater priority than expanding the number of places."

On Monday Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, expressed concern about the financial burden for those who miss out.

She said: "This year, more than ever, we fear for the thousands of students who miss out on a university place and face paying three times more next year or struggle to find careers advice following Government cuts."

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, sought to play down the fears.

She said: "It must be very dispiriting for students who have worked hard for the results they're receiving to be faced with a barrage of gloom and apocalyptic predictions that usually turn out to be incorrect.

"People making such unfounded forecasts, usually to score cheap political points, are quite irresponsible and they should consider the impact it has on applicants.

"I would advise people looking to secure a university place to speak directly to specialist advisers at Ucas and at universities."

She said that last year nearly 70% of university applicants were accepted on to a course.

This summer's A-level and GCSE exam papers have been beset by errors.

Around 100,000 students are thought to have been affected by mistakes in 12 exam papers this summer.

The blunders ranged from wrong answers in a multiple choice paper to impossible questions and printing errors.

The five exams boards responsible for the errors have promised students they will not be penalised, in what looks to be a record year in terms of top grades.

Education expert Professor Alan Smithers predicted earlier this week that one in 10 A-levels could be graded as A*, as this year teachers and students have a better understanding of what is required to gain the top result.

However, he also suggested that the overall pass rate was likely to stay about the same, perhaps rising or falling by 0.1%.

David Willetts, the Universities Minister, told BBC News: "What we've tried to do, as our bit to easing the stress, is we have delivered again the 10,000 extra places we delivered last year, so there will be once again a record number of places at universities for young people.

"What matters for young people is the repayment. Nobody pays to go to university up front, and I'm hearing a lot this morning about students who will want to apply in 2011 rather than 2012.

"If you go to university in 2012 under our new system your monthly repayments after you've graduated will actually be lower because you'll only start paying back when you're on £21,000 rather than £15,000.

"When you look behind the headline figures, actually it's not the case that all universities are charging £9,000.

"A lot of them are really being very imaginative in finding ways where they've reduced fees, provided extra support for students from poorer backgrounds and the principle on which we work in the coalition is we don't want any person to be put off from going to university by any fear that they can't afford it."