Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Not worth the paper on which it is written?

There are some post-16 qualifications that are simply worth more when applying to university

It’s an argument that most students will have heard at some point, usually in conjunction with the claim that A levels are getting easier and that standards have fallen.  According to the popular trope there are proper, traditional subjects such as history, maths and English; then there are their ‘Mickey Mouse’ equivalents such as media studies, communication studies and performance studies.

For a long time the argument deployed to defend these ‘softer’ subjects has focussed on the different method of assessment employed, noting that the key skills developed are equally transferrable as those earned studying traditional subjects. 

Whether or not these ‘soft’ subjects are actually any easier than their ‘traditional’ counterparts is irrelevant; if they are perceived to be easier by those that matter – universities and their admissions teams – worth diminishes.

The recent publication of Informed Choices, an admissions guide supported by the Russell Group universities is designed to increase transparency and fairness in the application process.  Many applicants will find themselves at a disadvantage if at 16, following their GCSEs, their school or college is unable to provide crucial advice on which subjects grant access to the most competitive courses at the best universities.  

Research suggests this is one reason why applicants from private schools have traditionally been more successful at gaining places at the top universities; their tutors simply know how to play the system.  This guide is a welcome step toward greater equity in the admissions process.

But the guide is not all good news; it spells out in no uncertain terms that admissions tutors at top universities believe that some subjects simply do not prepare applicants with the skills necessary  for university study.  In laymen’s terms, soft subjects do exist and they are the more or less those subjects that have been maligned all along.

In order to gain a place at a top university applicants will ideally be studying at least two traditional subjects, with one A level in a softer subject permissible, but not preferable.  There is also some suggestion that universities prefer A levels over other qualifications such as the BTEC, applied A levels and the Extended Project.  It goes without saying that most top universities will not accept general studies or critical thinking A levels.

This begs the obvious questions, why have schools and colleges offered these courses for study?  Why has it taken a decade of promoting participation in higher education for this crucial information to emerge?  What now for those young people studying these soft subjects and their ambitions of gaining a place at a top university? 

A lot of this information has long been in the public domain; the University of Sheffield publish a list of preferred A levels on their website.  Admissions tutors may prefer those subjects with which they have greater experience, or it may have taken a decade for the truth to emerge; the softer subjects simply do not prepare students for university.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to this information emerging is the sharp reality of inequality that it illustrates.  Universities are likely to be aware that some schools and colleges don’t offer traditional subjects - such as history and philosophy - because they simply cannot attract the necessary teachers.  Instead they offer the soft subjects for which they can attract sufficient staff.  

There is also a suspicion that schools are implicitly encouraged to promote the easiest qualifications to their students in order to boost their league table standing.  Either way, making this information public would have confirmed that those attending poor performing schools do not have a fair chance of accessing the best universities. 

The election of the Coalition government has also been an important factor.  The insights from Informed Choices explicitly support the government’s shift in education policy toward a greater focus on traditional subjects.   Had these insights emerged during the more inclusive reign of the previous government - who encouraged the proliferation of softer subjects in the first place - universities may have found their admissions procedures subject to further criticism and scrutiny, rather than a knowing sense of acceptance.

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