Hey unis, leave our exams alone

Helen Crane

Exams Hey unis, leave our exams aloneAs a student from a middling state school approaching the end of my time in higher education, I think A-level examinations set by university lecturers could be seriously damaging for both the aspirations and the achievements of those at less successful schools. This fear is amplified when you consider that Education Secretary Michael Gove suggests that the majority of question-setting responsibilities would be handed to academics from Russell Group universities; the UK’s 24 leading research institutions. According to their official website, only one in five British students attends a Russell Group university. So why should all students be forced to either meet their high academic standards or fail?

When was it decided that the sole function of the A-level was as a ticket allowing the bearer admission to university? Those who decide not to go on to higher education seem to be forgotten here, and, as the tuition fee rise takes hold in September, they will only increase in number. Having good A-levels can be a great advantage in the job market in its own right; they should not be made inaccessible for those who do not aspire to university. In my school, this accounted for a third of the sixth-form, most of whom have gone on to very decent jobs thanks to the extra edge their further study awarded them.

Having exams set by the Russell Group could perhaps also deter those who may be aiming for a less traditional course from applying to university. If they are not put off education altogether by the difficulty of the proposed A-level curriculum, they could struggle to meet the academic requirements of the courses and fail to get a place. Not getting a university place because you failed your exams seems fair enough on the surface, but in many cases the level of academic achievement required by the A-level would surpass anything they would ever be required to do at university.

A worst-case scenario could be that universities which specialise in more vocational courses would be closed altogether or merged, resulting in a rapid back-pedalling on the last fifty years of higher education progress. Of course, some would be very happy with this outcome. But a move which could spell disaster for so many students and institutions should at least be opened up to public discussion, rather than occurring as a by-product of a policy supposedly designed to improve the education system.

As Julia Neal, a teacher and former president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, has rightly pointed out, “We are preparing our students for entry not just to Russell Group universities but other universities as well…this is in danger of becoming very elitist.” Elitism, as a concept, desperately needs to be eliminated from the higher education system. It serves no useful function other than making those from less successful schools feel intimidated. Coming from an average school where only 14 per cent of pupils go on to a ‘selective’ university, my memories of my first weeks at a Russell Group university were dominated by a sense of being out of my depth; not quite good enough. If my A-level classes had made me feel like this too, I wonder whether I would even have applied. I came to realise that the school you went to doesn’t make you any more intelligent; nor does it make you more stupid. Exactly the same is true with the type of exams you take. Whoever sets the questions, it all comes down to this: those with teachers who are better equipped to prepare them for an exam will generally perform slightly better.

It has also been reported that some universities have been forced to give ‘remedial’ classes to get first-year students ‘up to scratch’ in their chosen subject. Unsurprisingly, the reaction to this has been one of abject horror at the state of Britain’s schools. However, realistically, could these classes not be seen as a positive thing? It shows that students are arriving on the same university courses from a variety of educational backgrounds, and although ensuring that they all possess the same essential background knowledge may be an inconvenience, the diversity it reveals is something to be applauded. After all, education is nothing if not a great leveller.

Photo credit: Getty Images

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  • jcwhitehead

    You’re not only wrong, but also rude and judgemental.

    It seems plain to me that the author of this article is making an important point: A-levels are used for more than one purpose.  To have an exam set solely by top universities ignores this, and the proposal is therefore flawed.

  • c0ns1stent

    I thought A Levels USED to be set by exam boards created by Universities, as did O Levels before they were merged with CSEs to make the GCSE. So going back to this is like putting hospitals under the control of senior Doctors (the old way) rather than office managers.

    What is wrong with those who define education (the Universities) testing the same?

  • James Phillips

    No. University level work is harder than A levels. However, the fact you have much more time to do it makes it only marginally harder than A levels which is much more time-constrained with 3 or 4 courses over just one year. My point stands that if A levels were significantly upped in difficulty then they probably would surpass ‘anything…ever required to do at university.’ Also, ‘drugging’ is hardly obligatory at Uni these days.

  • Janis Hopkins

    “Elitism, as a concept, desperately needs to be eliminated from the higher education system” – that’s hilarious. Is that serious? The whole point of higher education is that it comprises the academic elite. If it wasn’t elitist, it wouldn’t be ‘higher’ education. Astonishing statement.

  • startingout

    The government seems to be focusing on two levels of employment – those with GCSE’s who are promoted apprentices and graduates who go onto graduate jobs and courses. There is currently not much of a market open to those candidates with A levels looking for their first job as they are unfortunately stuck somewhere in the middle. There are a few opportunities for A levels caliber candidates, for instance, but not many…

  • Becka B

    we pay £9000 overall- trust me, paying £3000 a year (at least) if I were to find out one of my tutors talked about me in that fashion, yes I would lodge a serious complaint, completely agree with Jim. And you talk a good deal about how your students are incompetent and don’t understand- I only did a philosophy and religion degree, maybe it’s different- but A Level exists so students can explore a broad spectrum of their chosen subjects so that should they choose to specialise in university, they know where their strengths and interests lie. University was dragged down for me by tutors who huffed and puffed and kept referring me to complicated books in subjects I found difficult to tackle, when it took them 5 minutes to explain to me- you forget your students are mainly 18-21 year olds and are younger and less skilled than you, and sometimes just need a quick explanation before they can safely say they understand. If you can’t explain yourself to your students, it isn’t the fault of the a levels they aced

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