Leader: AS levels should not be a shortcut to degree entry

August 23, 2002

The annual A-level row is almost over and the GCSE version is just beginning. It is the universities' turn to be accused of dumbing down. At a time of record pass rates, some are apparently ready to take students who admit that they failed their A levels. Margaret Hodge has promised an "inquiry", although it is hard to imagine what it will achieve. The universities are, after all, responding to the government's challenge to widen participation in higher education. Ministers insisted that their targets must be met without compromising standards, but that test is one to apply at graduation rather than entry. Since barely a third of 18-year-olds take two A levels, no one expects expansion to be delivered without a more flexible approach to admissions.

The foundation courses run by two of the universities accused of offering places to A-level "failures" are a legitimate example of this. Their aim is to prepare those without the right qualifications to make the step up to higher education. It is a different matter to award places on degree courses. Mature students are rightly judged on more than just their school record, but there must be doubts about whether teenagers who cannot master A level will cope with a degree.

Defenders of such open access argue that A levels are a poor predictor of future achievement and should not be a bar to university entry. Some cite this month's report by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, who claimed that admissions officers would do almost as well to toss a coin as to rely on A-level grades to separate candidates. But, while marginal differences of grade may be unreliable, it is clear that poorly qualified students are less likely than their peers to complete a degree.

The new element in this year's controversy is the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff. It is possible to reach the old threshold of two Es at A level with a combination of key-skills qualifications and AS levels. The principle of rewarding achievement in a broader range of courses is admirable, but not if it provides incentives to play the system. After spending years developing the tariff, Ucas will be reluctant to consider changing it. But two AS levels are not the same as an A level - they were pitched at the standard expected at the end of one year of sixth form and they should not be the basis of university entry if the student has failed to make the next step.

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