EVERY year in the middle of August, hundreds of thousands of students receive their A-level grades. This happy event triggers several time-honoured newspaper traditions. These start with photos of attractive female students jumping for joy with their results and follow with articles complaining about how A-levels have become too easy. Indeed they have. The Times’s story yesterday that students needed only 14 per cent to pass maths A-level this year is a shocker, but it’s part of a much wider problem across the educational system. In 2006, Manchester Metropolitan University allowed undergraduates to proceed to Year 2 with marks of 14 per cent. Universities routinely award marks to students simply for turning up to their seminars. These scenarios are not outliers, they are the new normal and are indicative of a broken system. Fair, consistent assessment has been replaced by ‘all must have prizes’.
The first A-level stories are invariably followed by several pieces of Guardian boilerplate, often poorly phrased invective from a teaching union leader outraged at anybody seeking to ‘talk down’ the sterling results of our young people (and by extension their teachers).
Sadly, whatever the Guardian and teaching unions would have us think, those complaining about falling A-level standards have a point. In 1980, the pass rate (the numbers of students passing against the numbers taking the exam) for A-levels (grades A-E) across all subject was 70 per cent. By 2013 it had risen to 98.1 per cent. Whilst it has undergone a modest reduction recently (falling to a miserly 97.6 per cent in 2018), it seems somewhat unlikely that students have become that much brighter, or that teachers have achieved Stakhanovite efficiencies between 1980 and 2018.
However, critics of educational standards have been so focused on this issue that they have forgotten to ask two potentially more important questions. Firstly, what A-level grades are universities accepting and secondly, in what volumes?
There is surprisingly little information on these subjects. We might be told that each year the university admissions service (UCAS) processes around 600,000 applications or that there are more than 450,000 student admissions. We might be shocked by the occasional story about universities offering minimum entry requirements of two grade Es at A-level. We’d probably be less shocked to hear that the 7,000 or so Oxbridge places each year will almost certainly require three A grades or better.
You would be searching for a long time, however, for any information about the proportion of students entering university at different A-level tariffs. Would it surprise you to know that 51 per cent of UK students are admitted with A-level grades equivalent to DDE or worse? It should, given that university admissions have for the last 50 years been supposedly guided by the ‘Robbins principle’ which states that:
This principle was intended to ensure that the supply of university places should keep pace with the demand from those students qualified by ‘attainment and ability’. Regrettably, it is difficult to find out exactly how qualified the students admitted to university are each year.
This might seem like fairly obvious and useful information to provide to the general public, who after all foot the bill for the generation of this data. However the bodies responsible, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and UCAS, don’t see fit to publish it. This is especially strange because every year UK universities and their many associated bodies produce an avalanche of glossy written material explaining what a marvellous job they are doing for students, the national economy and society.
This tactic of information overload always runs the risk of the occasional useful fact surfacing, which might cause a lay reader to get hold of the wrong end of the stick and start asking tiresome questions. One such fact escaped in 2014, when the Higher Education think tank HEPI published a report analysing demand for HE in the UK up to 2020. The authors made use of figures based on a ‘UCAS ad hoc analysis’, showing undergraduate acceptances by their UCAS tariff points (grades achieved) in 2010. To put this into context, UCAS awards 140 points for an A* at A-level, 120 for an A, 100 for a B, 80 for a C, 60 for a D and 40 for an E.
2010 UK undergraduate applicants enrolled by UCAS tariff points
What these figures show is that 51 per cent of undergraduates enrolled in 2010 with A-level qualifications equivalent to DDE or worse, and that 35 per cent of undergraduates enrolled with no tariff points. If we take into account three decades of grade inflation, a massive increase in A-level retakes and modularisation, and the inclusion of AS levels and general studies to boost many students’ tariff points, describing these students as of DDE quality is probably being very kind. The reality is that the majority of undergraduates are now entering university with A-level grades that would have been equal to E, N or U from twenty years ago. Amusingly the HEPI report concluded that ‘demand [for HE] is set to increase strongly for the foreseeable future, and that present policies imply that there will be large numbers of disappointed applicants’.
In fairness, HEPI do make explicit their assumption that two grade Es at A-level signals attainment rather than failure. I’m not so certain that Lord Robbins of ‘Robbins principle’ fame would have seen it that way.
Returning to the question of A-level standards, and whether they have declined in the three decades, it appears that this is less of an issue than the fact that the concept of university admission criteria has become something of an oxymoron over the same period.