Qualification Matters

Yesterday evening I had a very enjoyable dinner with a seminar speaker and group of students from the Kobayashi-Maskawa Institute at Nagoya University. On the way back to the guest house I’m staying in, at about 9.30pm, we passed a group of young kids in uniform apparently returning from school. I was told that they were students from a Junior High School (chūgaku) who had been studying late in preparation for an entrance examination to the (selective) Senior High Schools (kōtōgakkō). I was a bit surprised to see young teenagers putting in such long hours, but such behaviour seems quite normal here in Japan.

One of the things I have to get to grips with when I get back to the School of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Sussex on Monday is the annual admissions cycle. I have meetings in my calendar for next week about this, and we are hosting an applicant visit day on Saturday 25th January; we have of course already made offers to a large number of students based on their predicted grades at GCE A-level. This process is fraught with difficulties, not least because there some schools seem to over-predict the grades that their pupils achieve in order to maximise the chance of them getting into University. Predicted grades being rather unreliable, it would of course be fairer on all concerned to use actual grades, i.e. to defer university applications until after the A-level results come out, but that would be far too sensible so obviously will not happen in the United Kingdom. I’m actually quite sceptical of the usefulness of A-levels for preparing students for University in general, but that’s another matter.

Anyway, the mini-rant above isn’t main point of this post, which is instead to issue a warning to those  students taking A-levels later this year. It is  based on anecdotal evidence, but quite a lot thereof. The point is that universities will often reduce their usual offer at A-level when they find an applicant with very high predicted grades, sometimes even making an unconditional offer (actually the minimum is two E grades) to high-fliers. This happened a lot in the old days when I was applying for a place at university. Though it is less common nowadays the government’s policy of lifting controls on universities’ ability to recruit students with three A-level grades at ABB or better is bound to increase the amount of game-playing as competition between recruiters intensifies.

This creates a number of issues, but the one I want to pick out arises when a student is predicted to get three As at A-level, but his/her first-choice university gives them an unconditional offer. Their first reaction will obviously be “whoopee! I’ll accept that offer and, what’s more, I don’t need to fret too much about my summer examinations..”.

In fact I’ve known plenty of students who came into university with quite modest A-level grades, but did brilliantly well at their studies and ended up with first-class degrees. There can be many explanations behind such cases quite apart from the relaxation effect. Some schools don’t have good specialist science teachers, for example; this can mean that a student’s interest is really only ignited once they get into university.

The problem is, though, that A-levels results are not just for university entry, they’re for life. A student may graduate with a good degree, even a First,  but so do many others. When selecting for postgraduate jobs, or even postgraduate study, recruiters often have a large number of people with excellent degrees; that’s an obvious consequence of the expansion of the Higher Education sector in recent years. What happens, therefore, is that employers and PG admissions tutors have to look at other factors; naturally, that includes A-level results but also even GCSEs. You might be surprised to learn that even if you get a first-class degree, your chances of getting a PhD place at a top institution depends on your performance at School but they definitely do. I’m not saying that this should, be the case, just that it in practice it is.

I recall hearing recently from one former student who had a first-class degree in Physics and a PhD from an excellent University, and who was applying for a job in a research institute (not in the university sector). The application form he received asked him to list not only his A-levels but also his GCSE results!

I hope I’ve made my point to any prospective students, but I’ll summarize it in case I haven’t. If you get a generous offer from your chosen university then that’s a good thing, because it means that they want you. You should be happy. But don’t ease off on your studies because if you end up getting poorer A-levels than you deserve, they may one day come back to haunt you.

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2 Responses to “Qualification Matters”

  1. This isn’t new. I discovered exactly the same when doing my PhD 20 years ago. 1st class degree, PhD, but top firms made their first selection on A level grades, and my Cs at maths and physics weren’t good enough. My excuse? Poorly funded and maintained comprehensive school forced into a disastrous merger just as I began A level studies. Many of the best teachers left, including the only physics specialist. So the issue then, and in some cases now, is to some extent the lottery of the school you went to, which in turn comes down to class, parental wealth, etc. Combined with lazy employers ignoring the evidence degree-level studies provide for intellectual maturing, potential unlocked and vocations discovered. The happy ending is that my old skool (The Priory School, Hitchin) has now produced three PhD astrophysicists to my knowledge. Not bad for a comp.

  2. On a somewhat related note, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts one day on the challenges facing those who decide to return to study physics at university later in life (especially those whose first A-Levels were in, shall we say, decidedly unscientific subjects), and the impact a demonstrable lack of initial aptitude for the subject might have on a persons career.

    For the same reasons, A-Levels are of course just as important to adult students, both as a necessary obstacle back to university, and as an indicator (however unreliable) – to the student as well as a tutor – of the potential ability of a student. But it occurs to me that mature students might have the opportunity to decide under which A-Level syllabus and examining body to study. Do you think this might offer any kind of advantage? Are there perhaps better qualifications to pursue?

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