Lay Top Trumps on table

September 15, 2011

I may be the last person you would expect to rally to the defence of David Willetts, but if his recent comments on differential tariffs for A levels are interpreted in a certain way, they open a necessary debate and have been unfairly dismissed by Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service ("Ucas head vetoes A-level bonuses", 25 August).

Like many, I dislike the idea of playing Top Trumps with subjects, but I dislike even more the prospect of young people falling between the gaps because they have not been given the facts.

I must make it clear at this point that I have little time for the suggestion that different subjects have different intrinsic value: this is not only problematically subjective but also unhelpful for those students who have recently received their results. If Willetts meant to support that suggestion, the critics were right to go on the offensive.

However, I suspect that the minister was drawing attention to an unconfirmed but widely rumoured practice - that universities do give different weightings to different subjects. If this were indeed his intention, he is right to encourage debate.

It may be true that unbeknown to students their choice of A-level subjects does restrict their options further down the line. As a result, they may pick the wrong subjects and be unable to get into the university or course that is right for them. Bureaucracy should not stop us being honest with young people and Willetts was right to raise this important issue. If, as I have suggested, there is a kernel of truth in what he says, to ignore his comments would be to let students down.

Liam Burns, National president, National Union of Students

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