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Where are the students with three Ds and below?

As proposals to limit university access to those with three D's at A Level swirl around the Augar review, David Kernohan looks at where that might have an impact - and why it would be a disaster.
This article is more than 3 years old

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

When you think of students with low prior attainment, you might think of a small number of providers that aim to recruit non-traditional entrants. But in reality, many institutions have at least some students on non-foundation honours courses with the equivalent of three Ds or below at A level.

This is not a complete picture. I’ve only looked at courses mapped to at least level two of the Common Academic Hierarchy (CAH2). But as testament to the rich variety of student life experience that lead to honours-level study, what I have found is hugely inspiring. For all the elitist talk of off-putting entry requirements, providers are taking students based on their potential and not their past. As we know that A level performance is closely correlated with multiple measures of disadvantage, this should be heartening news for anyone concerned with social equality.

The data

I’ve never used the Unistats dataset before but there is both a richness and a frustrating incompleteness to it. What is offered here is a taste of low prior attainment in the sector, not the full picture. I’ve plotted only where the data I need exists, and there are many courses that are therefore not visible on this graph. For this reason you should not see this visualisation as a league table.

When you choose the CAH2 subject area of interest using the drop-down menu at the top, the main graph shows the average percentage of students with less than 80 UCAS tariff points (80 is equivalent to CDD at A level) starting on courses at each institution between 2015 and 2017.

I’ve provided a number of additional filters:

  • Honours allows you to decide whether to also look at courses that do not lead an honours degree. By default this is set to honours only, as it is likely that more students with lower prior attainment would be on non-honours courses.
  • Foundation allows you to decide whether to look at courses that include a compulsory or optional foundation year. By default I have selected both optional or no foundation year available.
  • Mode allows you to chose to view full or part-time courses, or both. By default you are looking at all courses, as there are very few part-time courses represented in the dataset.
  • Region and Group allow you to filter by provider location and provider type, respectively.
  • The Provider Name highlighter lets you quickly find an institution of interest. You may have to scroll the graph to find it.

Clicking on one of the dots in the main graph opens an additional window below – this shows you the specific course names at each institution, and mousing over these shows the population size for the percentage calculations for each course (orange line) and the inferred number of students with 80 points or less (blue line). The inferred number has been calculated because the data in Unistats only exists as a percentage.

[Full screen]

Why does this look odd?

There are a number of reasons why an institution or course may have more students with lower attainment than you might expect. For example:

  • The course or institution may have used a high number of unconditional offers or taken a large number of students through clearing.
  • The course or institution may accept applications other than those that map to the UCAS tariff – like interviews, auditions, portfolios, or specific entry examinations.
  • A course or institution may be of particular interest to mature or professional learners.
  • In rare cases, incorrect data may have been submitted to Unistats.

Looking at the list of individual courses may help you identify what is going on.

Limiting access to loans

The past weeks have seen much discussion of the idea of limiting fee and maintenance loan access to students with DDD at A level or above. As incomplete as it may be, what this data tells us is that this decision could have an impact in every subject area and nearly every institution – but more importantly that many students capable of studying challenging and rewarding courses would lose the financial support that they need to participate.

Components of the Unistats Dataset are reproduced with the permission of the Office for Students (OfS), the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and their licensors. The Unistats Dataset may be accessed in its original form here.  All copyright and other intellectual property rights in the Unistats Dataset are owned by OfS, HESA and their licensors – terms and conditions are available. The Unistats Dataset, and thus this visualisation, is for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice – HESA make no representations, warranties or endorsements about the information in the Unistats Dataset or its accuracy.

8 responses to “Where are the students with three Ds and below?

  1. A key omission of this data is that it excludes the Open University where at least a third of students don’t even have two A-levels, let alone DDD.

    Unless the proposed minimum grades threshold has exemptions built into it to allow “second chance” learners to access higher education – as the Browne Review proposed when the idea was first floated back in 2010 – it will seriously hamper social mobility.

  2. Good point Peter. I made no deliberate decision to exclude the OU, so can only assume that the data is not available from unistats (this viz just shows you what is in unistats tagged to at least CAH level 2.)

  3. Won’t courses identified by subjects only be those that don’t have enough students for course-level data (either over one or two years), as per the usual unistats aggregation rules? Ones with no data will either have loads of students (so course-level data), very few students (so a CAH1 subject bucket), or no tariff data at all (which might be true for OU).

  4. @David

    I know it’s a data issue rather than a methodological issue – wasn’t trying to imply otherwise! The exclusion of OU data is because OU courses do not have UCAS tariffs attached to them in the HESA data due to open entry – this means that perhaps half of current students who would be affected by minimum entry standards won’t be picked up in HESA data based analysis.

  5. BTEC equivalence to A-levels is very favourable. Universities/subjects with high levels of BTEC students will be greatly favoured by an analysis which is based on this equivalence.

  6. A very good point Tom. A large BTEC intake can improve an institution’s average tariff. This can be offset, however, by lower value added (used in the Guardian league tables). It will be very interesting to see the effect of the changes in the BTEC framework (from QCF to RQF, the latter of which has significantly greater examination content) on the DDD threshold. I’ve seen data, for example, that shows distinction or distinction star attainment at BTEC has fallen massively under the new framework……

  7. The issue with BTEC qualifications, which I think are great, is that the sector is poor in supporting the transition to a more theoretical style of learning. Hence, BTEC entry qualification students have a higher withdrawal rate than those with traditional qualifications such as A levels.

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