Strength in breadth

August 27, 2004

While some universities are mopping up the A grades, others focus on diversity, says Donald Ridley

Once upon a time, perhaps three decades ago, about 10 per cent of school-leavers went to university. They were the elite of the secondary school system. They came with a standard middle-class UK education and three hard-won A levels. Academics did not have to work too hard to teach them. Very few mature students were provided with an opportunity to rectify earlier educational failures. There were few international students, few European students and few students from ethnic minorities.

Think also about the nature of the "A-level" assessment. As a nation we have been both improving the quality of our teaching and specifying very finely "the criteria" of success for students doing AS and A2 examinations (to give them their proper names). These criteria are not secret so people naturally aim for "the criteria". The loose marking schemes of 30 years ago and the judgements of rushed examiners have been replaced by a more uniform and fairer framework. Of course it has constraints, but that is the price of uniformity and comparability; and so it should be. This uniformity opens the gates of opportunity to those accessing higher education by less conventional routes.

Doubting pundits need only pop into their local bookshop and look at the broad range of excellent revision guides to see why people do better. There is now no excuse for not knowing what you are doing in AS/A2 these days.

The truth of the matter is that the standards of the system as a whole have risen, not fallen. People are not so easily allowed to fall by the wayside.

Their potential is more carefully nurtured.

The old system failed people by not supporting them in their studies. It was outrageous that about 30 per cent of A-level results were fails. Now that should have been headline news. An A grade of today is not an A grade of 30 years ago: it's neither better nor worse - it's different and it's part of a far better system.

So what does this mean for university admissions? Universities know that three A grades is likely to mean a trouble-free student who progresses happily through the system and gets a 2:1 - probably. Good for quality assurance exercises, good for an easy academic life and good for the mid-20th century.

But the truth of the matter is that the interesting and profitable opportunities for 21st-century universities lie in living with the realities of global society as it is today, serving community needs and having a fun time doing research and scholarship as part of this. If some universities are busy mopping up people with three A grades in clearing, let them. They will be creating relatively uniform, uninteresting cohorts for themselves, consisting of students who have competently and bookishly made their way through school and will competently and bookishly continue to good degrees and worthy, if not sometimes dull, careers.

Better by far to work with a broader spectrum of people that reflects today's society in all its breadth and depth. That's where the innovative talent of the future lies. To anyone who thinks that standards have fallen, enter the A2 of your choice and do the exams. Let's see what you get. Then we can draw a comparison over the years. This might just prove a humbling experience. But in the mean time, some of us at least are grateful to those universities that take the surfeit of three A grade candidates, so that we can get on with the best part of the job - learning from our broadly based eclectic and questioning students, many of whom, horror of horrors, may not have any A levels. How could such a thing be possible? Well, that's another success story of the reform of higher education in the UK.

Donald Ridley is principal lecturer in psychology at the University of East London and an admissions tutor.

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