Record A-level pass rate will hurt arts students

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The Independent Online
RECORD A-level passes will be released on Thursday, creating a scramble for places in already hard-pressed universities. The results will take the pass rate to 80 per cent, up from 79 per cent last year and 70 per cent in 1983.

Some admissions tutors, particularly in arts and social sciences, will have more successful applicants than they can afford to take.

The fee paid by the Government for each student in arts and social sciences was cut by pounds 550 last winter, after conditional offers had been made. That helped to persuade universities to cancel plans to expand this year.

Most are expected to honour offers because they could be sued for breach of contract if they do not, but they will stick rigidly to the rules. Students who have dropped one grade, and even those who have the right number of points but in the wrong subjects, will be rejected; a student who needs three grade Bs but gets A,B,C is likely to be turned away.

The number of places remains the same as last year, at 260,000, but applications have risen by about 5 per cent from last year's 400,000.

Arts-based courses account for almost the entire increase; the number of students applying for science courses is still falling. Since 1980, the number of students taking science A-levels each year has gone down from 42,000 to 32,000, while the number taking arts subjects has risen from 60,000 to 81,000.

Ministers, worried by shortages of science graduates, have cut fees for arts and social science students from pounds 1,850 to pounds 1,300 for next year to force universities to cut down places. The fees for science students remain at pounds 2,770, the same as last year.

Alan Smithers, Professor of Education at Manchester University, said the rise in the pass rate - which has gone up each year for the past 10 years - might be caused by the large increase in students taking the exam.

The first A-level entrants, in 1951, represented 3 per cent of the population. Now the figure was more than 30 per cent, he said. 'As examiners are seeing a wider range of the age group, their notion of what a first-class performance is has changed a bit.'

Philip Evans, headmaster of Bedford School and an adviser to the Government on examinations, questioned whether standards were rising and said the improvement in grades might be caused by generous impulses on the part of the examiners.