Leading article: A for achievement

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The Independent Online

Every year, it is the same story. Record numbers of students pass their A-levels; record numbers gain A-grades; record numbers of traditionalists complain about falling standards, debasement of gold standards and university courses in golf-course management, and other critics extol the virtues of a Continental-style baccalaureate.

This year, though, the old story has a new twist. Next year, the plot develops further. Changes are welcome and may finally put an end to the sterile August ritual - not least because A-level results should eventually be published in July. This year, increased tuition fees will be introduced, but with payment - by students rather than their parents - deferred until after graduation. The effect has been, after an increase in university applications last year, to suppress applications slightly this year. Our education editor reports today that some excellent universities are, as a result, reducing their grade requirements for some courses or offering additional financial incentives. We trust our official Ucas listings will help prospective undergraduates to negotiate their way through this important choice. More than that, we urge as many students as possible to take advantage of the life-changing opportunity of a university education.

In this, we beg to differ from the somewhat gloomy view expressed by Martin Stephen on page 33. We celebrate the expansion of higher education in recent years, believing it to have enriched the economic and cultural life of the nation. It is far better that about 42 per cent of this year's 18-year-olds will go to university than the tiny minority of a generation ago. But we recognise that this expansion has created problems, which are now being addressed.

The changes to student finance are one necessary and welcome change, which will empower students as demanding and discerning purchasers of education rather than merely passive recipients of it. The change also makes the funding of further expansion of higher education fairer, by recognising the financial benefit that accrues to graduates. To those who argue that the growth in student numbers has eroded the labour market premium on a degree, the answer is that the new system lets students be the judge of that. It was sensible, however, of Alan Johnson, in one of his early statements as Education Secretary, to renounce the target of 50 per cent of young people going to university. It should be for young people to decide for themselves if higher education is "worth it", financially, culturally and personally.

The second big and welcome change is the publication of modular A-level results next year, in most cases giving universities 18 grades to look at rather than three. In truth, this is a change that will affect only a few students. But the problem of trying to distinguish between students with three straight As is one that has disproportionately dominated the annual ritual of national self-flagellation. It drives much of the commentary about exams getting easier. They may be, but a more important explanation of grade inflation is better teaching (sneeringly described as "teaching to test") of better-motivated pupils.

The splitting of A-grade A-levels into six component parts should take some of the heat out of that national whinge. We could then focus on the real priorities: celebrating the rising standards of the majority and finding new ways to engage and inspire those pupils unsuited to traditional forms of academic study.

To all of this year's A-level students, we say: Congratulations, and, if you have the chance to go to university, do not be put off by the doomsters; it is still an enriching and liberating opportunity.

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