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Let universities choose their entrance criteria

A simple tweak to the funding of school exam boards would lead to better standards and more appropriate examinations at lower cost

The grade inflation of the UK A-level exams is well-documented, such that a need to introduce a new A* grade has occurred, following the introduction of an A* grade in GCSEs many years ago.  This is another case of treating the symptoms of a problem rather than the causes.  The most elegant solution is much easier and cheaper: simply let the universities set the exams.

The current peculiar system requires that schools are the bodies that pay the exam boards, which results in a horrible conflict of interests.  Exam boards compete with each other for schools’ custom. Given that schools are rated by parents by the grades that the students each of school achieves, it is natural that firstly that examination standards gradually weaken and secondly that the marking of said exams becomes more lenient over time.

This has two obvious effects:  Firstly, the universities are less able to distinguish between the best students due to the more lenient grading.  Secondly, the students are educated to a lower standard than their predecessors.  For this reason, degree courses now frequently have to extend over four years instead of the traditional three.  This is particularly the case with science degrees where I am told by physics lecturers that much of the first year is now spent covering material that 30 years ago would have been covered at A-level.

The simple reform whereby either universities be required to pay the exam boards or else set their own exams would result in the exams being set for the benefit of the universities.  Since it is the universities that receive the product of these examinations (the students), rather than the schools, who wave them goodbye at the age of 18, surely this structure would make more sense.  Given that exam content would be tailored for subsequent use at universities, this would also make the national curriculum redundant and so remove a large unnecessary cost.

I am confused as to how we were saddled with the current dysfunctional structure.  Certainly years ago, universities did set their own exams.  For example, in the North of England, the JMB was set up as a de-merged entity responsible for the setting of exams for Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds Universities.  This board later took in more universities’ exam-setting capabilities (presumably to reduce costs) and merged with the NEA to form probably the largest board, the NEAB.  This does not answer the question though as to how this resulted in the schools being responsible for the payment of the boards.  I wonder, does anyone know why this occurred?

This Telegraph article neatly illustrates the issue.

5 comments to Let universities choose their entrance criteria

  • mrg

    Makes perfect sense to me.

    I went to secondary school and university in Ontario, Canada. There was a standardised OAC curriculum, but no standardised exams, or exam boards that I recall.

    Universities judged applicants according to the grades assigned by their teachers. To account for differences in standards between schools, they tracked the performance of past graduates.

    For my programme, at The University of Waterloo, performance in the Descartes maths contest was also considered.

    Things worked just fine.

  • As an ex-teacher I can vouch for the softness of exam grading. Many tests can get extra points for presentation. So a student can have little understanding of a subject but still get a result based on how prettily they presented their answers.

  • Jeremy

    This think this is an excellent suggestion based on a very simple change to incentive structures. As Tim says, the current regime leads to a deflationary pressure on grades as boards compete to offer the easiest exam to schools. Changing to a regime where boards are paid by the universities would surely reverse this trend.

    However, one unintended consequence of this proposal would be an increasing disparity between A-levels of different boards. For example, the most academic universities would naturally favour a tougher syllabus as this would help their admissions process. Ultimately the A-level may cease to be a standard of any sort and we will end up with a range of entrance exams set by different universities. This would make teaching difficult, especially to mixed ability classes.

    My proposal would be to establish a single board, composed of representatives from all UK universities, to agree the syllabus together. This board would be entrusted with upholding the standard, and, by construction, would represent the views of the universities. The benefit would be that a single standard would be established and maintained, which helps not only UK universities but also UK PLC offer a clear standard to attract foreign students.

  • Tim Lucas

    @Jeremy

    Competition is the whole point and necessarily results in a divergence of standards. Divergence of standards is what must be accepted generally in order for a market to exist, and the market process has generally been the best over time in terms of provision of service at low cost.

    In this particular case, I think the situation would play out as follows. On the reform that universities set their own entry criteria, I suspect that the more academic rigorous universities would set fairly high standards. This would likely set the market as future employers would prefer these qualifications over the less-rigorous ones. As a result, the less-academic universities would piggy-back off the exam setting skills of the more academic ones and just adopt their exams. In essence, academic exams would be set by the most academic insitutions (in the UK Oxford, Cambridge and the big Red Bricks). Exams for non-academic skills would similarly be set by most rigorous in the specific non-academic area (Corgi for plumbers etc). This all occurs as a result of the end customer’s (the employer’s) preferences.

    However, I do concede that your proposal to have a single board (while far from optimal) would be preferable to the utter chaos that we have currently – so long, that is, that this board be paid for by the universities, and not by the schools!

  • Tim Lucas

    And thank you Jeremy for the thoughtful reply!

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