The unintended consequences of changing Oxbridge entry requirements

Asking for two A*s only helps people who excel at exams

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The Independent Online

This year the powers that be at some of the country’s top universities have decreed that one A* is no longer enough to merit a place at their institutions. In a predictable attempt to solve the problem of over-subscription at our leading universities, the hopeful few sending off their UCAS applications for Oxford or Cambridge, as well as those sending off applications for select courses at Imperial College London or Warwick University later on in this academic year, will be expected to obtain at least 2A*s in order to secure a place on some courses.

However, those responsible for raising this academic bar don’t appear to have considered the long-term consequences. While the number of applicants will fall, using the A* to distinguish between applicants already in the top academic one per cent of their peer-group has the potential to change the very type of applicant.  

New entry requirements mean that successful candidates are more likely to be those who have benefited from the A-level system. They will be the students who have achieved Government targets, memorised a uniform syllabus and jumped through the hoops of strict assessment objectives. In exams, these students will have skilfully ticked off a list of requirements and come out with A*s. Rarely will have they been required to think outside the box. 

It’s ironic therefore that Warwick, Imperial College London, and Oxbridge, where the new requirements have been introduced, are all academic environments where thinking outside the box is encouraged. With the new requirements, these institutions will judge applicants from the very start of the application process on their ability to work a system that is completely alien to the one they will go on to find themselves immersed in. 

While these students benefit, the applicants who will lose out the most will sadly be the applicants from lower-achieving schools. Up against candidates from high-achieving state schools, grammar schools, academies and private schools where students are drilled in delivering what the examiner wants in meticulously planned exam answers, candidates from other schools where this useful information isn’t part of the curriculum can only prepare to be further disadvantaged.

Or they can if they aren’t deterred by the frightening prospect of having to achieve not one but two A*s in the first place to even consider applying. Although Cambridge has insisted that the change does not raise the bar academically, since nine out of 10 successful applicants achieve A*A*A or better anyway, in increasing entry requirements the university has failed to recognise that there is a huge difference between an individual’s expectation of what they will achieve, their school’s prediction of what they will achieve and what they actually achieve on results day almost a year later. 

For most sixth-formers, due to their own expectations of themselves, the prospect, not to mention the pressure, of having to achieve just one A* at A-level is daunting. Often, the presence of a single A* in the entry requirements for a degree in a university prospectus is reason enough for them not to apply for that course, whether or not an A* is within their grasp. Sometimes it’s because, like countless other teenagers, they lack confidence in themselves, but sometimes it’s also because they make these decisions with parents and or teachers who, reluctant to see the student disappointed, encourage them to set their sights on university courses with entry requirements they can definitely achieve. 

For these parents, teachers and students, the sight of two A*s on a list of entry requirements is only going to ring alarm bells. For them, Cambridge has some words of comfort, claiming that the new requirements merely reflect the "level of attainment realistically required to compete for a place, and to thrive on science courses". Sadly, what they haven’t considered is that many of the applicants who will be deterred by the new requirements are more than capable of such attainment. They just don’t know it yet.   

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