University admissions needs to shake off the tyranny of A levels

A levels were designed as pre-entry qualifications for university. They're no longer working, argues Nicky King.

Nicky King is Associate Dean for Education in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences at the University of Exeter and is chair of the Society for Natural Sciences.

Each summer we have the same conversations over A level grade inflation, post qualification admissions systems and how good this year’s students are really going to be.

Never was this more intense than in 2020 when exams were cancelled and we saw the chaos of centre assessed grades and government backtracking. The auspices for 2021 are not much better.

But what is it we’re actually looking for in a pre-university qualification? We’re currently still inextricably tied to the narrow selection, and small number of subjects typically studied at A level yet study after study shows that pre-university qualifications are not a great predictor of degree success and that, other than maths, perhaps, few subjects studied pre-university do in fact confer a clear advantage on students when it comes to study at university.

Prepared to learn

What do we actually want of our students; that they come to us in possession of core facts which they can repeat back to us, or that they come to us enthusiastic to learn more about a particular subject area with the skills to seek out and assimilate new knowledge?

For subjects like physics and chemistry we always expect the A level or equivalent qualification. That’s how it’s always been. There is core knowledge without which you can’t succeed. But there are unforeseen consequences.

In STEM we have a particular problem with enticing girls into subjects like physics. A significant number of girls are lost to physics because the school they attend does not offer it at A level. However, work at Exeter has found that highly motivated students can be successful in subjects in which they don’t formally possess the standard entry qualifications.

For example, students studying natural sciences without A-level physics can be as successful as physics students in undergraduate physics modules. So with the right skills and motivations students can be successful even without what is traditionally perceived to be essential prerequisite knowledge.

The humanities are somewhat less wedded to prerequisite knowledge; it matters less which particular text or period of history you have studied than the fact that you have acquired the skills to do so. But we still ask students to narrow their selection of subjects at 16 thereby limiting their choices later on.

Teenagers make decisions for many reasons, not all of them good. I dropped history before GCSE because I didn’t like the teacher and I didn’t take biology A level because I was too squeamish and didn’t want to do dissections. By doing so I closed off whole subject areas before I really understood what they were and the opportunities they offered.

As academics we are used to pushing ourselves to explore new fields; no successful academic says they won’t explore a question that interests them because they don’t possess a certain bit of core knowledge. Instead we go out and seek it, fill in the gaps for ourselves in order to facilitate the work we want to do. We should facilitate that for our incoming students to increase their choices and develop their overall skill set.

Interdisciplinary work is at the forefront of many recent advances in knowledge, not least in the way people from across the scientific and wider academic spectrum have worked together on solutions to the pandemic. However, our narrowing of student choice at A level, and subsequently at degree level, actually stifles this interdisciplinary way of working.

Break the wheel

We are of course stuck with a system in which prerequisite qualifications are so entrenched that it’s almost impossible to test, or to demonstrate whether students can be successful without the traditional background.

Exeter’s unusual Natural Sciences course does do this, with all students facilitated to study modules across physics, chemistry, biology and other STEM options, but with maths being the only prerequisite qualification for the course. It must be acknowledged, though, that these students are high tariff and have self-selected for this type of programme which will have had an influence on their ability to succeed in this environment.

Foundation programmes can also allow students to make up for “bad” choices at A level, though the suggestion from the Augar review that funding is removed from foundation programmes in HE and provision covered in FE rather inhibits this flexibility.

Post-16 education should offer both breadth and depth alongside core skills development; breadth of ideas and subjects, skills to explore in depth and many would argue mathematics skills development for all. This would open up our incredible and eclectic range of degree level study to the widest possible number of students.

It’s a chicken and egg situation. A levels are narrow and limit choice, so universities have inextricably tied themselves to particular prerequisite qualifications which disincentivises students from taking a breadth of subjects.

What is easier, for those of us in universities to unshackle ourselves from our traditional and ingrained pre-requisites and think about how to support skills development and students’ ability to seek out knowledge for themselves, or reform of the post-16 qualifications system?

While the latter would probably be preferable, we know how slowly the wheels turn and these conversations have been had before and gone nowhere. Instead, within HE we must challenge our preconceptions and be imaginative in the way we structure our first year curricula to support a more diverse intake and provide opportunities for more people to study the subjects we love.

By doing this we will increase both the diversity of our student populations and diversity of thought in our disciplines which can only improve academia and bring new opportunities for all of us.

2 responses to “University admissions needs to shake off the tyranny of A levels

  1. Very lively and a good case made; interestingly, this is coming from a more ‘traditional’ university. Consider the success of the Open University in helping students from very diverse backgrounds (and in some cases with no prior ‘A’ level study) to succeed even in ‘hard’ curriculum areas,

  2. I was under the impression that A-level grades are a strong predictor of degree completion / final HE grade?

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