Offa’s Irrelevance

There is leader column in today’s Grauniad about the University entrance system which, it rightly says, is “in a mess”. It’s good to have discussion of this subject in the press but the problem is that, in the typical fashion of a Guardian editorial, this piece is worthy in sentiment but misses the basic point entirely.

The reason for visiting the theme of student access to Higher Education at this point is the kerfuffle surrounding the appointment of the next boss of Offa – the Office For Fair Access – a quango set up by the previous New Labour Administration to ensure that universities do everything possible to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to go to University. A laudable aim, but doomed to failure at the outset. The reason for this is that the system of post-16 education is fundamentally flawed (as it clearly is), then no “Access Czar”, however powerful, can hope to accomplish the vast amount of reverse-engineering required to ensure that universities can cope with failures earlier in the system. Just look at how useless Ofgen has been at regulating energy prices, for example, another case of a flawed system impervious to a quango’s attempts to improve it.

The point which is missing – and which our political masters and the educational establishment alike refuse to acknowledge – is that GCE Advanced Levels are neither an adequate preparation for University study nor a reliable way to select applications on their suitability for a given course. People who actually work in Higher Education know that this is true, but the Power That Be won’t recognize it and instead maintain that A-levels constitute a “Gold Standard”. The fact is that in the hands of Examination Boards that compete for business by lowering their standards, A-levels have become nothing other more than base metal, and tarnished to boot.

If I had my way we wouldn’t use A-levels at all to determine whether a student gets a place at their chosen University. I’ve seen so many examples of absolutely brilliant students who entered Cardiff University with modest A-levels – often having not got into their first choice institution and coming to us through the clearing system – that I’m sure there are many excellent potential students out there who didn’t get into university at all. The other side of the coin is that many students who get top A-level grades across the board don’t flourish at university at all. It’s my experience that A-levels are no guide at all to a student’s ability to do well on a course.

If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself the following question. If Cambridge only takes students with grade A* at A-level, why don’t all their students end up with First Class Degrees?

Any attempt to fix the severe problems that beset the student entrance system must begin with a recognition that this is where the fault lies.

So what’s the solution? I think it is to scrap A-levels entirely, and give the system of pre-university qualifications over to the people who actually know what students need to know to cope with their courses, i.e. the universities. There should be a single national system of University Entrance Examinations, set and moderated by an Examination Board constituted by university teachers. This will provide the level playing field that we need. No system can ever be perfect of course, but this is the best way I can think of to solve the biggest problem with the current one. Not that it will ever happen. There are just too many vested interests happy with the status quo despite the fact that it is failing so many of our young people.

Good luck to whoever it is that takes over at Offa, but it won’t make any difference who’s on the bridge because the ship is already on the rocks.

11 Responses to “Offa’s Irrelevance”

  1. Dave Carter Says:

    So which university teachers are going to do this moderating then? Presumably the time to do it comes out of their research time. You will end up with exactly the same situation, the people who set the university entrance exam will be those who are no longer active in research, and the workload will be such that they are soon no longer active in teaching either.

    I do think that you identify one problem correctly, which is the competition between exam boards for custom, which encourages schools to shop around for the board which gives the highest grades in a particular subject. Schools often put a lot of effort into this selection process. But overall I think your post is far, far too negative, sure some students don’t do well in A levels but flourish at degree level, just as some do not shine as undergraduates but prove exceptional later. But just having a different entrance examination is no solution, even Oxford don’t do this any more. The only way to improve selection is to have a serious interview (as opposed to a sales pitch).

    • Well if the money currently being spent on the A-level examination boards were instead channelled to universities then I’m sure there would be sufficient incentive for staff to get involved as part of their normal teaching activity.

      • Dave Carter Says:

        Right, so you are suggesting nationalising the examination boards and handing them to the universities to manage. A laudable aim, but not one in line with current government philosophy I fear.

      • telescoper Says:


  2. […] “… A laudable aim, but doomed to failure at the outset. The reason for this is that the system of post-16 education is fundamentally flawed (as it clearly is), then no ‘Access Czar’, however powerful, can hope to accomplish the vast amount of reverse-engineering required to ensure that universities can cope with failures earlier in the system …” (more) […]

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    Yes, the marketisation of education, where different examination boards compete for customers, has inevitably led to a reduction in the rigour of examinations.

    A-level examinations have a number of purposes today. Providing universities with an assessment of students’ suitability for university study is just one of these, although one of the most important. However, many young people choose not to go to university and instead embark on careers. Any system of examining young people must be useful for those people who choose not to go to university, as well as those who do.

    • I would argue that current A-levels are of no use to anyone, whether they want to go to University or not.

    • I must disagree Bryn. I got into university this year with modest A Levels and very little in the way of academic merit to my name – I was, at best, an average student. I’m now doing extremely well and have achieved marks that are higher than what I expected as well as in some cases higher than my counterparts with better A levels.

      I think a good attitude and an enthusiasm for the material that you’re studying matters more than your previous grades. Studying at university is much more than just sitting in a lecture and drinking yourself half to death afterwards. You’ll find the people who do this, is 99% of cases, perform poorly in assessments and in general don’t do as well as those who go home and research the material that they’ve been taught to actually understand it. Academics know this all too well. I bet they see it every year.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Of course, motivation, enthusiasm and a determination to work are the most important factors in determining success at university. That is something I always tried to convey to tutorial students.

      However, it is very difficult for universities to judge whether an applicant for an undergraduate course will show those qualities at the time of applying to university. Universities use A-level results to decide who to let in for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is that good A-level results quite often are the result of working hard, showing motivation and dedication. Decent A-level results also show that a person has learnt and understood the foundations of a subject, and these foundations can be then be built upon at university.

      Some people do not reveal their potential in their A-level results. This can be for a number of reasons, including personal crises or poor teaching in their school. For all their many faults, A-level results do at least provide one objective way of assessing what a person has already managed to achieve.

  4. telescoper Says:

    Thank you. Error corrected.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this and I believe that OFFA simply shouldn’t exist. Universities have an incentive to take the students whom they think will get the best degrees, and that should be it. OFFA is just another example of jobs for the NuLabour boys at taxpayer’s expense and social engineering, and once they exist they will never find impartiality even if it is there because they would do themselves out of a job. It is OFFA that is not impartial. Parasites – sack the lot of them.

    Yours impartially

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