A government task force is considering ways to make entry to university "fairer" and easier for pupils from poorer backgrounds.
The discussion document will look at aptitude tests to help find out more about students' abilities rather than their likely A-level grades. This raises the prospect of weighting applications in favour of youngsters from deprived areas.
Although university places have increased, there have been concerns that there are still too few young people from poorer backgrounds going into higher education.
Does the A-level entry system disadvantage poorer students? Should universities accept lower grades to help disadvantaged youngsters? What was your experience of the admissions system.
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
The problem permeates to the companies who hire graduates and this causes the snob mentality. I once volunteered to interview graduates for an investment bank. I was shocked to only get the CVs an hour before I met the applicants. All the CVs were from "posher" universities - the ones that used to be seen as the best about 10-20 years ago +Oxbridge, but certainly not now! The applicants were all like robots. They all had top A-level results, they were all on target to 2:1s at degree level, and they all bored me completely. None of them inspired me, none exhibited any enthusiasm or knowledge about the job.
James S, UK
University admissions tutors are not stupid. If they need to compare two candidates who have the same grades, and one of them went to a private school and one went to a state school, I'm sure that they would appreciate that the state school student probably had to work harder to get his or her grades. It is not fair on anyone to change grade boundaries artificially.
Shalim Khan, UK
I came from a single parent, working class, comprehensive background, and I worked very hard to get my degree. I took part time work to supplement the loan I took out (no grant). A couple of years after graduating, I now have a reasonably well paid job, that I enjoy. But that job was only open to 'degree qualified' candidates. If 50% of the population attend university, as this government seems set on, then once again, I will revert back to being a small fish in a big pond. This idea completely devalues my experience of attending university.
Friends working in higher education report that standards at their institutions are now so low that taking them lower would be near impossible. The government is well-intentioned but misguided. The issue is should so many people be taking on debts in exchange for qualifications that will be of little or no value to them post-graduation? Wouldn't it be better if quality skills and vocational training gave those people the means to find employment in industries that are crying out for new talent?
How about ignoring grades altogether and doing it all on interviews and aptitude tests? In my experience many people who did well at exams in school found the more open style of study at university was not to their liking.
If the Government wants to encourage kids from a poor background they should:
1) Reintroduce a full means tested and realistic grant
2) Abolish fees
3) Raise standards in state schools
They should also get out of this mind-set that you are only something if you get a degree. The day every twenty year old gets a degree is the day the degrees are worthless.
No. I worked extremely hard to get into university (as did my other state school-attending friends). What's more, as Scottish students, we only had one year to get our heads around our Higher subjects, as opposed to the two years that students spend studying for A-levels in England and Wales. Thanks to the dumbing down of a university education, getting a first class degree wasn't enough to get me a job; I then had to do a self-funded Masters - thereby getting even further into debt - to get a job that pays me £11,000pa. Under-valued? Yes. Over-educated? Possibly. Hopefully, any children of mine will be good with their hands and won't want to go to university.
I have a theory. The government in the '60s was appalled by the success of the grammar schools in producing a well educated working class, not all I admit, who were no longer satisfied with just working in factories. The Oxbridge establishment did not want the competition from the proletariat so they introduced 'comprehensive' (what a misnomer) education and trashed the idea of grammar schools. This has gone so badly they are struggling with the policy of pretending there is a fair system for poorer pupils whilst guaranteeing that the establishment still holds sway. This idea should be thrown out, but history tells us that it won't be, because there is no way back to repair their damage to the education system.
Richard King, England
Friends working in Higher Education report that standards at their institutions are now so low that taking them lower would be near impossible. The government is well-intentioned but misguided. The issue is should so many people be taking on debts in exchange for qualifications that will be of little or no value to them post-graduation. Wouldn't it be better if quality skills and vocational training gave those people the means to find employment in industries that are crying out for new talent.
No. Definitely not. There should be a dramatic cut overall in University entrants from all social classes. The country currently has 33% University entrance. There are enough graduate jobs to support 10%.
This would simply cement the fact that the poor in this country are here to provide cheap labour for the rich.
We need more skilled trades people, such as plumbers, carpenters, hair-dressers, car mechanics, the list goes on.
Philip Le Roux, Hampshire England.
It is typical that the problems of disadvantaged children, those who have had a poorer start in education, should be permitted to drag the higher education system down. These children should be given a far better start in the first place, and later aspire to a qualification that hasn't been devalued. As it is, devaluing degrees is only going to make losers of us all. But it's easier to do than produce improvements, so the government will opt for it.
Richard Blake-Reed, Bath, UK
Is it too logical to suggest that if the government wants more people to go to university, they should do it by putting much needed investment into secondary schools to automatically produce higher-grade students who become eligible for University? Surely the goal should be to build a better educated population rather than demerit our existing high university standards!
Standards have already dropped in UK Universities. I am a retired University Professor. As the sciences are unpopular and Universities are paid by bums on seats the only way they have survived is by lowering standards. At most Universities a good third of the science students will have lower than two A-levels with a C and a D. Remedial classes are the norm in the first year, so that the nominal fail rate is as low as possible - 10 failed students equals one member of staff's salary.
George, New Zealand
A lot of this discussion seems to have lost sight of the original point made by Bristol University - that in their experience students who had scored slightly lower A level grades from a comprehensive school with a not particulalry high average score tended to do better at degree level than students with top grades who had been hothoused through a small-group-size, selective independent school. They've had to do more for themselves. If we're looking students who will gain/achieve most at degree level, this approach seems highly laudable.
Angus Gregson, UK
Changing acceptance levels at A-level could be setting students up for failure at degree level.
Lowering entry grades is not a rational solution unless you also intend to lower the university diploma standards. Students who don't have the academic aptitude at A-level are hardly going to make the grade at degree level and are likely to fall by the wayside within the first year of study. This is not only demoralising for the student but a waste of resources
Aptitude tests may offer students from deprived backgrounds a chance to demonstrate their potential but surely these students would be better served by catching up on some of their lost education through one year access courses.
The unfairness in the present system lies in the disadvantages that poorer students face prior to going to university. Obviously, therefore, the problems of social deprivation and the low standards of some state schools should be targets for reform, and not universities.
Rather than dumb down universities, why not improve state schooling?
Whilst agreeing with many of the comments raised in this discussion, I feel one very significant issue is being overlooked.
Many young students have non-academic talents for which there is, or should be, a proper place in society. The alternatives to academic 'excellence' for all should be given their proper place within our education system, without prejudice or stigma.
Young people whose talents and skills lie elsewhere than in a university education should be supported in our education system and not branded as failures.
Therefore, the failures are in our education system, which is blinkered, and in the proper financial support and encouragement for those students with academic talent who do wish to go on to University.
Horses for courses, one size does not fit all in education as elsewhere in society. A devalued universal university education is not the answer for a healthy, inclusive and balanced society.
Great. Having levelled GCSE standards to the lowest common denominator, changed the "gold standard" of A-levels to one of tin, the government now want the universities to accept the same fate.
The comprehensive failure has disproved the socialist theory of education.
It is time to change this state run anathema and pursue educational policies which benefit children and society in general rather than one that just massages the egos of "professional educationalists.
Edwin Thornber, UK and Romania
I think universities should provide a foundation year for those who do not meet the normal entry criteria. For them, this would mean a four-year degree instead of a three-year one.
Retaining the existing standards and duration of the degree course but accepting a lower level of knowledge at entry would mean much more work for the student. Students with good "A" levels could start in the "second" year of the course.
Universities should be allowed to select the applicants most likely to succeed. There is evidence that state school students do better on degree courses than privately-educated pupils with the same grades. It is a scandal that admissions policies do not already take this into account.
Universities should be open to all purely on merit. There should be no skewing of the intake. We need bright people from whatever background to get the most out of our education system and bring value to our economy. My parents were working class but my children go to private school. Is it fair that because their parents have worked long and hard they should be discriminated against if they have the ability?
It's typical that the one thing that would drive people from poorer backgrounds to university is the one thing that's not on the agenda - grants. Lowering standards is a mistake, but giving those students from poorer backgrounds who want to go a genuine belief that they could afford to do so would give them the incentive to get the grades. It won't happen of course...
David Evans, UK
Anyone given a good public school education can go to university. You don't need to be that clever. The opportunity to do well at a bog standard comprehensive is much smaller. The academics are the product of the current system and are bound to see performance from public school education as the best.
Universities should be centres of learning, producing the very best qualified people that they can. That's what they do best, it's what the country needs to survive in an increasingly competitive world. Turning them into giant social engineering workshops to fulfil some educationalist's dream is a recipe for long-term decline in this country.
John R Smith, UK
As a Manchester University-educated English person living in the US for the last 15 years, my comments are as follows - be cautious about doing anything to lower the standards in higher education. Over here, there is a general belief that "everyone" can go to college - but many people seem to come out with a pretty mediocre education. Do more to help the democratisation of the system at a much earlier stage in children's development (obviously includes social/political improvements as well as just schooling). Don't start eroding university standards, it's a slippery slope.
Sue Benfield, USA
Why the constant drive to lower the quality standards in our education? Surely we should work to increase our efforts to bring students at all levels up to a higher standard.
If the government want more people to go to university then they should scrap tuition fees, as they contribute more to making higher education elitist than any admissions policy I know of.
Why not extend this idea further, and award degrees to everyone at age 18? It would be thoroughly anti-elitist, cheap, accessible to the poor, and would mean about as much.
Peter Clay, UK
Universities have already seen an incredible lowering of standards over the last ten years. Reduce them any further and there will be little point in having a university degree, unless you go to one of the traditional elite universities.
Arthur Dent, UK
This is simply the government completely side stepping the real issue. The reason that less people from poorer backgrounds go to university is because they can't afford it - simple as that. The government is suggesting this to divert public attention away from the current tuition fees situation and the even worse plan to bring in top-up fees. Instead of looking at how many poorer background students are at university it should be studied how many easily capable poorer background students never even considered university because of financial reasons.
Daley, Sheffield, UK
I graduated five years ago with a 2:1 degree and come from a resolutely working-class background. However, when applying for a university place, I was turned down by a well-known university without getting an interview, despite the fact that my predicted grades were well above what they were asking for. I later found out I was rejected because I went to a comprehensive school. Whatever we might like to think, education still has a way to go to make access both equal and fair.
I was accepted to my university on the basis of no A-levels, and half an HND. I was accepted on the basis of my ability in the subject, which I was able to demonstrate at interview.
The government should not meddle with the admissions process. Universities already select candidates on the basis of their ability. Adding a bias towards poorer candidates would be unfair.
The government's whole policy on higher education is incredibly naive. They want see everyone going to university in the future, when the harsh truth of the matter is it is already too easy to get into university, and increasing the numbers will only devalue degrees even further.
I went to a comprehensive and now study Natural Science at Cambridge. Even with good A level grades (AAAAA) I struggle with the level of difficulty of work and only just managed to get a 2:1 in the 2nd year. Dumbing down entry requirements would simply mean higher drop-out rates. The A Level has definitely got easier since the 80s, in that much of it is now on the 1st year syllabuses to make up for this. This has resulted in 1st year material being crammed onto the second year making the jump between 1st and 2nd year akin to that of GCSE to 1st year. The new physics AS/A2 level has recently caused Cambridge to have to remove large segments of the 1st year course to fill in the gaps missed. Soon three-year degrees will become four-year degrees to cover the material, resulting in even MORE student debt. Not an amicable solution...
Chris Pulman, UK
If the system is unfair, the solution is not to make it unfairer! The way to help disadvantaged pupils is to give them the resources that they need at school to achieve the grades that they need, not to try to compensate after the damage has already been done.
Brendan Fernandes, UK
This is a misleading question because it implies that students are accepted at universities solely on their A-level grades. I interview candidates for undergraduate places at a Cambridge college and A-levels have never been the only criteria by which a candidate is taken on -- why else do you think we conduct interviews? Why would we ask for written work, or set them specific tests? Do you think we want to make work for ourselves? A-levels are one indicator of how good a candidate is, but they are not 100% reliable. With enough resources a student can be coached to achieve a grade above their ability, and students coming from backgrounds lacking those resources may get grades lower than they merit. That is why we carry out all those other tests of a student's ability. If a candidate was accepted with a lower A-level grade it would not mean that they were a weaker candidate -- it would mean that their strengths were evident through other means of assessment. It is not in our interests to take weak students, which is why we cannot rely on A-levels alone.
Dr David Clifford, UK
When I went to university I found it hard to get funding even for tuition fees. My parents were earning over the limit needed to get my tuition fees paid and they told me that it was my choice to go to uni and that they would not contribute anything to my education. When my accommodation and fees were taken out of my loan I was left with £200 to last me the year! I had to get a job at uni just to pay for food and books and this left less time for study.
So what happens when parents do not wish to contribute? The students get in more debt.
What an excellent method of undermining the perceived value of British University degrees! We've already done it to A-levels (remember the debacle of exam marking which cast doubt on students' actual achievement?) and now we're going to do the same to degree courses. Accepting lower entry grades undermines the perceived value of a degree - and this is surely a dangerous idea. I strongly counsel against doing it. The current system is perfectly fair and doesn't need to be changed.
Anonymous (University Lecturer), Bristol, UK
Poorer backgrounds do not mean lower grades. The idea of private education and its ties with the elitist universities of the country should be eliminated. Elitism is to blame, not poor backgrounds.
Yes defiantly. I don't know whether I will get in where I want right until the last minute. But its not just the entry grades that need changing, the whole UCAS system is confusing.
Rich H, UK
No. Degree students, by and large, are expected to attend lectures, do coursework/essays and sit exams. How can it be that a system that examines pupils' abilities to do just these things (A-levels) disadvantages them? And why should being poor or coming from a working class background lead to an inability to be academically successful prior to university? What this country is in real danger of doing is utterly diluting the meaning and importance of a university degree. We've already had the situation where every institution of higher education was labelled a "university" and if the aim is to get as many people to attend a university as possible then anyone wanting to prove themselves will be forced to go a step further and do a Masters or PhD. All it will do is increase the number of people with huge levels of debt, all vying for the same number of jobs that exist at present.
University entrance requirements should not be dumbed down to suit the mediocre level of education provided by state schools. State schooling should be improved to match private school levels, if it is shown that educational achievement is higher in private schools.
A typically stupid response to the problems in schools. If we could end the disadvantage to children in "sink" comprehensives then we wouldn't need to tinker with higher education admissions.
A place at university should be judged on academic achievement alone. Regardless of background and location, bright children will shine through. Once they have qualified on an academic basis, then financial assistance should be given to those who really need it.
Changing one unfair system for another can't possibly gain support from anyone. The argument that someone born to a poorer family shouldn't be unfairly discriminated against surely applies to someone who happens to be born into a rich family.
In my opinion and experience, even if a person is from a 'deprived' area or family, if they are capable of gaining the grades and work hard (like anyone), they usually do. If they are capable and do not, it begs the question that if they do not work for their A levels, then why would they change and work for their degree?
Eleanor Anderson, England
No, people should go to college on merit. Making more bursaries and better funding options available for low income families have to be the way forward.
No, universities should not lower entry grades. What they ought to be doing is look at the degree subject that people are being allowed to study. Degrees in "football" and "celebrities" don't seem to have much relevance in the real business world of today.
I went to university in 1983, where the emphasis was on training you to think. Learning any particular subject was a side-effect of that process. Subject-orientated learning was the function of polytechnics. My wife (who is somwhat younger than me) went through university recently, where her education was almost entirely concerned with course work and writing essays, and very little to do with mental discipline. I also noted that my grant, in 1983, was a bigger number of pounds than the loan she could apply for today. Indexed, the value was four or five times as large. Trying to "dumb-down" university admissions, simply to boost the numbers of people we can say "have been to university" will only produce a "level playing field" in the Orwellian sense. Better funding throughout the entire educational system, from paying for decent Primary school teachers upwards to re-instating a decent level of student grant is a necessary precursor to an education system that is both fair and yields exceptional individuals who can generate wealth for the country later.
It's not that the A-level system disadvantages poorer students, but that it doesn't measure the abilities that universities need in their students. Anyone - in any school - can have poor teachers or a poor learning environment. It's just that those situations are more common in poorer households and poorer regions. A-levels measure how much the sponge has already soaked up, not how much more it can absorb. So there should be other factors taken into account. Simply giving extra points to kids from poorer areas is a simplistic approach to this problem, but at least it's a step in the right direction.
Provided one has confidence in an IQ type test that can't be coached for then I don't see why those results shouldn't help redress the educational in-balances so prevalent in the UK. However I can hear howls of outrage from those who either go private or otherwise play the system as they will perceive less opportunities for their children in securing top university places
One rule for the rich and another for the poor, eh?
Everybody who takes A levels are exposed to the same pressures throughout the country. It's whether these students are encouraged by their parents or teachers to continue their education at university that determines whether or not they go. Entry to top quality universities across the country has been made easier in recent years as it is and if it is made even easier then the drop-out rate will increase. The universities are businesses that want your money, if you continue the course or not, they don't care as long as they are paid.
University is an experience everyone needs to be offered.
I am currently taking an engineering course at a very well respected university, I know many people on my course who got in with grades lower than CCC, it is therefore little surprise to me that in my second year the drop out rate was just under 1 in 4. It is all very well lowering the grades to get into university but authorities must ensure that there is an affective support structure to reduce failure rates resulting from it.
J Turner, UK
Let's not lower standards yet again.
If students from disadvantaged backgrounds are let into university on lower grades, will the same principle apply when they struggle with their university course work or exams? A-level grades should reflect a student's ability and it is hard to see how a student who struggles at A-level, but is let into university anyway, will benefit unless some form of additional coaching is made available at university level.
Lowering the goalposts is patronising to them and insulting to students who have worked hard to achieve grades the university decides they need to tackle their further education courses competently.
I think it would be better to bring back the apprenticeship system, the country is seriously lacking in skilled tradesmen who know what they are doing. There is a real shortage of people such as plumbers or builders. I know many people who have completed degree's and now work in jobs in call centres, there is no guarantee that your qualifications will get you a top job, there just aren't that many out there.
Dave Barnett, United Kingdom
If students from poorer backgrounds (or from any social group) are underperforming at A-level, then this is a failure of the secondary education system.
The solution is to improve secondary education, not to attempt to extend its problems to tertiary education.
Jasper Kent, UK