By James Groves, Head of Policy Exchange's Education Unit
Record numbers of A-Level students are going to be finding that the university places which they had hoped for are not going to be there. Securing a place at one of England’s universities has become more competitive than ever. But is this all bad? A healthy measure of competition must be allowed to prevail and access to our universities should be rigorous if standards are to be maintained.
This need not mean that we should cease from looking for new and better ways of improving the supply of Higher Education across the country. Crucially, universities must be allowed to raise top-up fees so that they become self sustaining and no longer rely as heavily on a limited pot of HEFCE funding. This system effectively leaves itself hamstrung, with Government having to artificially set a cap on the number of student places available each year and fining any institution which recruits more than their quota of undergraduates. The private sector could also bring considerable new capacity, issues around which we here at Policy Exchange will be exploring in an upcoming report.
However, much of our focus should be upon ensuring a healthy degree of completion for places remains, provided that all students get the chance to compete on a level playing field. Much has been made of the fact that the independent schools outperform state maintained schools on A-Level attainment by a considerable margin. Yet, rather than channel our energies on berating the successes of the private sector, should we not be asking how improvements in maintained schools can be secured?
I might even suggest that the latter might learn from the former. In particular, maintained state schools should look seriously at the A-Level subjects they are offering their students and at how universities regard these subjects. In The Hard Truth About ‘Soft’ Subjects, published in 2008, we indicated that non-selective state school students are far more likely to take non-traditional A-levels than students from Independent and Grammar schools. For example, 75% of all A-level examinations are taken in non-selective schools, but 96% of Law and 93% of media studies A-level entries are in these schools. Conversely, Independent school students are far less likely to take non-traditional A-levels. For example, 15% of all A-level examinations are taken in Independent schools, but only 2% of Sociology and 6% of Psychology A-level entries are in these schools.
This is not just an issue of student choice: it is about which subjects schools choose to offer. Part of the reason why students are more or less likely to choose non-traditional A-level subjects is the availability of those subjects at the school they attend. Non-selective state schools are far more likely to offer non-traditional A-levels than Independent and Grammar schools. For example, non-selective state schools account for 73% of the market share of all schools offering A-levels, but 90% of schools offering media studies are non-selective state schools.
While the previous Government claimed there was no such thing as a ‘soft’ subject, this was proved immaterial by the fact the vast majority of 27 leading research intensive universities that we surveyed admit fewer ‘soft’ A-Levels in comparison with the national uptake of these subjects in schools. Our data on A-Levels accepted in 2007/08 indicated, for example, that more than three times as many Economics A-levels (640) were accepted at Nottingham University than Sociology (193) or Drama/Theatre Studies (165). These two subjects are both more popular than Economics at A-level in schools.
Such hard truths point towards two key realities. Firstly, universities must be properly transparent with students, parents and schools about certain ‘soft’ subjects which they believe do not provide sufficient preparation for Higher Education. Secondly, state maintained schools must face up to the fact that they have a responsibility to advice students of the potential implications of studying ‘softer’ subjects. Furthermore they have an even greater responsibility to emulate the Independent sector by ‘bucking the trend’ and by finding innovative and exciting ways of teaching those more traditional A-Levels which will leave their students much better placed to compete in the race for a University place.