Thursday, 17 July 2008

Universities shun A-levels for own admissions tests

By Richard Garner, Education Editor
Thursday, 17 July 2008

Students from a school in Didcot, Oxfordshire, receive their A-level results

John Lawrence

Students from a school in Didcot, Oxfordshire, receive their A-level results

At least 18 universities are setting their own admissions tests because they believe they can no longer rely on A-level results alone to gauge a candidate's ability, a report reveals today. Universities UK – the body representing vice-chancellors – estimates that one in seven of its 132 members has introduced such exams.

Its findings are a further blow to the credibility of A-levels, and have angered critics who claim the university entrance tests will help middle-class students whose parents can afford coaching for them. Many of those setting their own exams are members of the Russell Group of elite universities and institutions. The tests, used mainly for popular courses such as law or medicine, include aptitude exercises, essay writing, critical thinking and subject-specific examinations, in addition to other forms of testing such as interviews and auditions.

Their popularity has been growing as the percentage of A-level students achieving high marks rises year on year. Last year, 25 per cent of scripts were A-grade passes. Both Oxford and Cambridge set tests for specific subject areas, as do Birmingham and Nottingham universities. Imperial College London also plans to set a general test for all candidates. Sir Richard Sykes, its rector, said A-level grade inflation had "destroyed" its ability to discriminate between bright and average students.

Warwick University, which is not on the Universities UK list, sets a test for potential maths students. A spokesman said: "We get the crème de la crème here and with so many students getting A grades in every subject it is the best way of ensuring we enrol the most talented."

Wendy Piatt, of the Russell Group, said: "There is fierce competition for places at Russell Group universities, particularly for courses like medicine, English and law. In many cases all candidates have three As and increasingly four As at A-level."

The Universities UK report says: "Admissions tests are considered particularly useful to identify very able applicants on high- demand courses, especially those related to entry to a profession, such as medicine, dentistry and veterinary studies. However, their use is not limited to high-demand courses."

Even teacher-training colleges such as St Martin's in Lancaster have introduced literacy tests. Primary trainees take a 20-minute exam during their interview, while secondary education applicants must sit a 40-minute grammar and writing test.

But critics said the wider use of admissions exams could be a barrier to widening participation in higher education, and could place an extra burden on poorer applicants. Stephen Williams, the Liberal Democrat universities spokesman, said: "Taking such tests can be costly and pupils from better-off backgrounds are more likely to be coached in advance."

He called for a radical overhaul of the admissions system – with students applying for courses after they have received their A-level results, rather than being offered provisional places on predicted grades. "Bright pupils who have not considered applying to university may then rethink their decision once they have got their results," he explained.

However, the Universities UK report cautions against this – warning that students might have too little time to choose a course and end up picking one which was unsuitable. It also dismisses the idea of delaying the start of the academic year until January – because poorer applicants might find it financially hard to wait for three months before starting a course and thus change their minds about going.

Figures from the University and Colleges Admissions Service show that the number of university applications this year is 9.1 per cent higher than last year. A total of 540,108 people hope to start full-time undergraduate courses in September. A year ago the figure was 494,842. The number of applicants from overseas has risen by 6.4 per cent.

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