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A few not particularly seasonal thoughts

14 December 2006

A December message from the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Eric Thomas.

The autumn term is always a long one, and as the nights get longer and the weather colder, we can all become a little jaded. I do appreciate how hard all our staff work, so please use the break to relax, enjoy your families and friends and recharge your batteries.

I leave you with a few, not particularly seasonal thoughts on the subject of the forthcoming A* grade at A-level.

Education, particularly higher education, is probably the most powerful cylinder in the engine of social mobility. This is even more so now because the future of the UK is as a knowledge economy that will succeed by engaging the highest intellectual and creative skills. It is essential that everyone who can contribute to that environment is able to access it – essential for individual fulfilment, for economic success and as a basic right for our citizens. Anything that militates against such an outcome serves neither society nor the individual.

How, I ask, does the announcement of an A* grade at A-level help this? I have been told that the imperative for the introduction of this higher grade was pedagogic and not the need to provide extra differentiation for admission to university. The pedagogy of secondary education is not my area of skill; I therefore concede to others with greater wisdom. If the A* grade produces better-educated 18-year-olds, that can only be a benefit.

I am clear that an A* was not necessary for differentiation for university admission.   Informal data from UCAS show that the number of students predicted to get three grade As at A-level who do not get an offer from any university is very small. Oxbridge may have problems, but they are only two universities. I asked every admissions tutor at Bristol (arguably the most popular university in the UK in terms of the number of applications per place) what their response to an application from a student predicted to get three As and with a decent personal statement and a good head teacher’s report would be. Thirty-four out of 42 departments would immediately offer such a student a place. A small number of departments in a small number of universities have problems with an oversupply of students with three As, but for the vast majority of higher education the current A-level system differentiates adequately.

What an A* grade at A-level definitely does do for selecting universities like Bristol is drive a coach and horses through our efforts at widening participation. It is hardly rocket science to work out that pupils educated in schools that are highly selective either in ability or, because of their location, in social demography or that are highly resourced will be much more likely to achieve an A* than those who do not have access to such advantages. If we start to give offers for admission predicated on achievement of an A* grade, we will effectively deny access to some of our most popular courses for a significant proportion of society – including many individuals with the ability, motivation and potential to succeed here.

A* grades are to be introduced in 2010. My first responsibility will be to ensure that the new grade does not unfairly exclude any individual or part of society from our university. I will next need to determine if this educational initiative does actually produce undergraduate students who perform differently from those with A grades. I will need evidence that there is real added value from an A* such that we can confidently use it to give differential offers. That means we will need to analyse the outcome for the first cohort of admissions who will graduate in 2013, or 2015 in the case of medical undergraduates. It is logical and equitable that consideration of the A* grade should become a formal part of universities’ admissions processes only after the grade has been shown to be a reliable predictor of the outcome of an individual’s degree.

I consider it axiomatic that part of the DNA of a modern, tolerant society is a desire for all of its citizens to be able to access education. I keep repeating that Bristol is committed to ensuring a diverse student body for two reasons. Firstly, straightforward equity; and secondly, because the evidence is that the more diverse the student body you are educated with, the better the education you receive. It is in everybody’s interests that universities like Bristol ensure that everyone from every background has an equal chance. An A* grade does not help this.

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