Pounds not points the problem

September 15, 2000

Are universities that lower entry grades to fill places storing up trouble for the future? Dennis Smith thinks not

As this year's admissions round draws to a close, anecdotal evidence is growing that universities and colleges have lowered their asking qualifications for entry in order to fill as many places as they can and maximise fee income. Indeed, the present government policy of constantly raising the proportion of school-leavers who go into third-level education prompts the question of whether this can be accomplished without a general lowering of entry requirements.

Reducing the asking grades for entry invariably causes colleagues to wail that "we are only storing up trouble for ourselves" since they assume that students blessed with more modest point scores are bound to fail. Are they right?

Last year, my university (Ulster) felt it necessary to reduce by two A-level points the minimum entry requirement for its largest degree programme, humanities combined. This was in response to a fall-off in applications to the programme for reasons embedded in the changing environment for higher education in Northern Ireland.

In the past, our programmes attracted considerable numbers of applications from the Republic of Ireland. Applicants took advantage of the fact that, as European Union citizens, they did not have to pay fees in the north, while universities and colleges in the republic did charge fees.

That situation was recently reversed following abolition of fees in the south and their imposition in the north. The healthy flow of applications became a thin trickle.

Further, while a significant proportion of qualified applicants cross the Irish Sea to universities and colleges in Britain, there is virtually no movement in the opposite direction.

Finally, higher education institutions in Northern Ireland have historically had a higher than average proportion of applicants who are either mature or from social groups previously under-represented in colleges or universities. These are the very types of applicant who have been most discouraged by the end of maintenance grants and the introduction of loans.

So did we store up trouble for ourselves by dropping our minimum entry requirements last year? Our investigations suggest not. Admitting that the sample was small - about 160 entered the degree programme - no real correlation was found between those who failed and those who entered with the new minimum points score. This finding will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with attempts to link A-level and other qualifications to degree classification.

In truth, we did have an unusually troubled first year, with fairly large numbers of re-sits and a distressing increase in the number of students failing or being required to repeat the year. But the students who experienced difficulties were spread right across the qualifications and points spectrum.

What caused the difficulties? In discussing their progress with a significant number of students, I constantly heard a litany of woe about financial circumstances. By and large, students are no longer able to concentrate totally on their courses in the way those of us of a certain age could in the past. To survive, they have to take paid employment - it is often easier to find an erring student by visiting the local supermarket where they are stacking shelves than by calling them to your office.

If standards in higher education are under threat, it is more because of the lack of maintenance grants - which compels many students to take these kinds of part-time jobs and diverts them from their studies - than any lowering of the points scores for admission.

Dennis Smith is senior lecturer in history and tutor for the first year on the programme for humanities combined, University of Ulster.

Does reducing entry qualifications lead to more university failures?

Does reducing entry qualifications lead to more university failures? Email us at soapbox@thes.co.uk

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