Alan Ryan

August 18, 2006

Today is A-level results day. It was nice to see Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, getting his retaliation in not just first, but a whole month early: not waiting until the results were out to take on the annual complaint that A levels are becoming easier by the minute. He denounced the criticsand claimed that school pupils were better educated than ever before. The cynic might have thought that he undermined the effect by insisting that they were going to be even better educated in future, and an already perfect A-level system would be improved by the addition of starred grades, harder questions and the other things that the complaining critics had been asking for.

Nobody so far seems to have made much of the implications of the decision by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service that a perfect International Baccalaureate is worth 768 tariff points. If an A at A level is worth 120, a score of 45 in the International Baccalaureate equates to 6.4 A-level A grades. Discuss. The question that universities have been able to duck because of the annual ruckus over A-level standards is the implications for university syllabuses.

It is obviously true that A levels used to be not so much harder as more straightforwardly attuned to old-fashioned single-subject honours. The idea of going to Cambridge to read classics with neither Latin nor Greek under your belt would have been absurd; and the amount of classical literature you would have read by then was much greater than you would be asked to read today. Similarly, in modern languages: the quantity of French and German literature you would have fought your way through at school was much greater than it is today. If you were not going to do that, you would not have done A level.

It does not follow that the average teenager is worse educated than 50 years ago. When only 4 or 5 per cent of the age group did A levels, the majority of teenagers left school at 14 and almost all the rest left at 16, so it would be odd if the average level were not higher today.

The answer so far as university syllabuses are concerned is, unfortunately, pretty much blocked by the new, higher tuition fees. It is to institute four-year degrees, modelled on the US system, with a couple of years of general education and then something more specialised or more vocational.

That would take the weight off A levels and give students a breathing space. Some 40 years ago, when Keele University ran four-year degrees, almost half the first-year students changed their minds about what they would specialise in. Any thought that opening up such possibilities is the way to recruit more scientists might be optimistic: but in the early 1960s, Keele was the only known university where more students read philosophy than any other subject.

Still, it hardly comes as a surprise that one reason why there has been an increase in the number of applications to US universities by British students is that students like the flexibility of an American course. There is more to that flexibility than appears at first sight. Many British universities offer courses that do not remotely resemble the single-honours courses of 50 years ago; not only are they multidisciplinary, they are also much more vocational than they used to be outside law and medicine. What we do not do on the American scale is to allow students to arrive with irrelevant qualifications and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Given the financial penalties on universities for letting students drop out and the sheer expense of gambling a year's worth of tuition fees and living costs, it is easy to see why we do not do what American community colleges and two-year state colleges allow students to do.

Still, we ought not to gaze at the US with uncritical admiration. A very nice story recently appeared in The New York Times . Auburn University in southeastern Alabama is a state institution with about 23,000 students that is famous for its American football team. It is not unkind to say that the university is less famous for its academic standards, and that its football players have been more distinguished on the field than in the classroom. In 2004, one of the team was honoured as a "scholar-athlete" for the high grades he had earned in sociology. This occasioned some surprise, as nobody had seen him in a sociology class. An investigation revealed that he, like 18 other members of the football team, were taking "reading courses" with the same sociology professor. Cynics can fill in the rest: "reading" meant one book and "assignments" meant one short essay. Students getting Ds everywhere else collected B+ grades. Some 80 per cent of these athletes got As. Has Auburn cleaned up its act? Do pigs fly?

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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