Open Admissions

As I predicted  last week, the A-level results announced on Thursday showed another increase in pass rates and in the number of top grades awarded, although I had forgotten that this year saw the introduction of the new A* grade. Overall, about 27% of students got an A or an A*, although the number getting an A* varied enormously from one course to another. In Further Maths, for example, 30% of the candidates who took the examination achieved an A* grade.

Although I have grave misgivings about the rigour of the assessment used in A-level science subjects, I do nevertheless heartily congratulate all those who have done well. In no way were my criticisms of the examinations system intended to be criticisms of the students who take them and they thoroughly deserve to celebrate their success.

Another interesting fact worth mentioning is that the number of pupils taking A-level physics rose again this year, by just over 5%, to a total of just over 30,000. After many years of decline in the popularity of physics as an A-level choice, it has now grown steadily over the past three years. Of course not everyone who does physics at A-level goes on to do it at university, but this is nevertheless a good sign for the future health of the subject.

There was a whopping 11.5% growth in the number of students taking Further Mathematics too, and this seems to be part of a general trend for more students to be doing science and technology subjects.

The newspapers have also been full of  tales of a frantic rush during the clearing process and the likelihood that many well-qualified aspiring students might miss out on university places altogether. Part of the reason for this is that the government recently put the brake on the expansion of university places, but it’s not all down to government cuts. It’s also at least partly because of the steady increase in the performance of students at A-level. More students are making their offers than before, so the options available for those who did slightly less well than they had hoped very much more limited.

In fact if you analyse the figures from UCAS you will see that as of Thursday 19th August 2010, 383,230 students had been secured a place at university. That’s actually about 10,000 more than at the corresponding stage last year. There were about 50,000 more students eligible to go into clearing this year (183,000 versus 135,000 in 2009), but at least part of this is due to people trying again who didn’t succeed last year. Clearly they won’t all find a place, so there’ll be a number of very disappointed school-leavers around, but they also can try again next year. So although it’s been a tough week for quite a few prospective students, it’s not really the catastrophe that some of the tabloids have been screaming about.

I’m not directly involved in the undergraduate admissions process for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University, where I work, but try to keep up with what’s going on. It’s an extremely strange system and I think it’s fair to say that if we could design an admissions process from scratch we wouldn’t end up with the one we have now. Each year our School is given a target number of students to recruit; this year around 85. On the basis of the applications we receive we make a number of offers (e.g.  AAB for three A-levels, including Mathematics and Physics, for the MPhys programme). However, we have to operate a bit like an airline and make more offers than there are places. This is because (a) not all the people we make offers to will take up their offer and (b) not everyone who takes up an offer will make the grades.

In fact students usually apply to 5 universities and are allowed to accept one firm offer (CF) and one insurance choice (CI), in case they missed the grades for their firm choice. If they miss the grades for their CI they go into clearing. This year, as well as a healthy bunch of CFs, we had a huge number of CI acceptances, meaning we were the backup choice for many students whose ideal choice lay elsewhere. We usually don’t end up recruiting all that many students as CIs – most students do make the grades they need for their CF, but if they miss by a whisker the university they put first often takes them anyway. However, this year many of our CIs held CFs with universities we knew were going  to be pretty full, and in England at any rate, institutions are going to be fined if they exceed their quotas. It therefore looked possible that we might go over quota because of an unexpected influx of CIs caused by other universities applying their criteria more rigorously than they had in the past. We are, of course, obliged to honour all offers made as part of this process. Here in Wales we don’t actually get fined for overshooting the quota, but it would have been tough fitting excess numbers into the labs and organizing tutorials for them all.

Fortunately, our admissions team (led by Helen Hunt Carole Tucker) is very experienced at reading the lie of the land. As it turned out, the feared influx of CIs didn’t materialise, and we even had a dip into the clearing system to  recruit one or two good quality applicants who had fallen through the cracks elsewhere.  We seem to have turned out all right again this year, so it’s business as usual in October. In case you’re wondering, Cardiff University is now officially full up for 2010.

There’s a lot of guesswork involved in this system which seems to me to make it unnecessarily fraught for us, and obviously also for the students too! It would make more sense for students to apply after they’ve got their results not before, but this would require wholesale changes to the academic year. It’s been suggested before, but never got anywhere. One thing we do very well in the Higher Education sector is inertia!

I thought I’d end with another “news” item from the Guardian that claims that the Russell Group of universities – to which Cardiff belongs – operates a blacklist of A-level subjects that it considers inappropriate:

The country’s top universities have been called on to come clean about an unofficial list or lists of “banned” A-level subjects that may have prevented tens of thousands of state school pupils getting on to degree courses.

Teachers suspect the Russell Group of universities – which includes Oxford and Cambridge – of rejecting outright pupils who take A-level subjects that appear on the unpublished lists.

The lists are said to contain subjects such as law, art and design, business studies, drama and theatre studies – non-traditional A-level subjects predominantly offered by comprehensives, rather than private schools.

Of course when we’re selecting students for Physics programmes we request Physics and Mathematics A-level rather than Art and Design, simply because the latter do not provide an adequate preparation for what is quite a demanding course.  Other Schools no doubt make offers on a similar basis. It’s got nothing to do with  a bias against state schools, simply an attempt to select students who can cope with the course they have applied to do.

Moreover, speaking as a physicist I’d like to turn this whole thing around. Why is it that so many state schools do teach these subjects instead of  “traditional” subjects, including sciences such as physics?  Why is that so many comprehensive schools are allowed to operate as state-funded schools without offering adequate provision for science education? To my mind that’s a real, and far more insidious, form of blacklisting than what is alleged by the Guardian.

5 Responses to “Open Admissions”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    At a guess Peter, they want to maximise the number of good grades they get. It is an example of the law of unintended consequences.

    Sometime, and subject to your blessing, I’ll slag off business studies here the way I have media studies. But I am surprised that Law is seen as a doss subject. Perhaps the Russell group believes (and perhaps rightly) that it requires a post-high-school level of maturity to study properly.


  2. telescoper Says:

    I was surprised by the status of the Law A-level too. People going to university to study law enter with a A-levels in a wide range of subjects, which is quite a different situation to physics. We assume they have some knowledge of physics before they come in, but I think law departments start from the assumption that students have no specialist knowledge. I think they would probably rather have students that had proved themselves on a traditional subject, such as history, rather than someone who has done law A-level, which may be at a level so simplified that it’s not really useful as preparation anyway. However, it’s clearly not the case that law is a “soft” subject at university!

  3. A pertinent observation by the High Master of St Paul’s:

    “One of the greatest ironies of the A-level is that our universities exercise virtually no influence over the exam that is meant to decide their entry.”

    Such is the tragedy of leaving our school examination system in the hands of those who are passionate about the non-subject of education. Allowing teachers and researchers who are passionate about their disciplines to design the system would be a welcome fresh start.

  4. Regarding your question as to why so many state schools do not provide adequate provision of the core subjects, such as physics, one suspects this is because (a) they don’t have appropriately trained staff and (b) teaching the easier topics lead to more flattering league table positions.

    I realise your question was largely rhetorical.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    The character of the Guardian article about suspicions of a list of “banned” A-level subjects is based on some perceptions by teachers and little more. Peter rightly dismissed the possibility of such a list.

    I’ll make a few points.

    (1) Of course, university departments desire to select the best cohort of students that they can, and their assessment of quality is based on the A-level results of the prospective students, the relevance to the degree course of the A-level courses taken (as Peter stated), and the perceived rigour of the A-level courses. It would not be surprising for departments to give somewhat less credit to less-demanding A-level courses, if such A-level courses did exist.

    (2) My experience of teaching in university physics and mathematics departments does not allow me to comment on whether some A-level courses are less demanding: physics and mathematics A-levels are rigorous (but less so today than a decade or two ago, due to the trimming of the syllabuses). It is interesting that the L.S.E. does have a central list of less-preferred subjects, if the Guardian article is correct.

    (3) John Bangs is quoted as saying that “he strongly suspected that there was a single unofficial list of banned subjects” among the Russell Group universities. (For general readers of this page, the Russell Group is a self-selected group of 20 universities that consider themselves to be the best in the United Kingdom.) I find such an idea absurd. Recruitment of students to universities is usually done by individual departments: the decisions are not taken by universities centrally. This is not the kind of issue that would have any coordination across an array of universities.

    (4) It would be very worrying if students studied A-levels in less-demanding subjects without understanding explicitly that this is the case. The comments already made here have rightly identified the pressures on schools to maximise the A-level achievements of their students, which could lead to schools preferring subjects and examination boards that provide an easier route to success.

    (5) If there are less-demanding A-level subjects, schools have a responsibility to advise their students that this is the case. This is not an issue of state schools versus private schools, but it is possible that private schools through their connections have an ear closer to the concerns of some universities and are better informed about opinion in universities.

    (6) Clearer signals from universities about A-level examination standards would be helpful to all, even if this is resented by people closely involved with setting examinations. Explicit statements would ensure potential A-level students have correct information regardless of the type of school they attend, and there would be no unjustified claims of secret lists of less-preferred A-levels. A greater involvement of universities and employers in shaping A-level syllabuses, standards and in quality assurance is highly desirable.

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