Leading universities throughout the country are arguing over whether to include the new A* grade as part of their new admission criteria. The newly introduced grade will be awarded to the most successful A-level students, scoring above 90% in their exams, at the end of this academic year.

The A* is already accepted by Cambridge University and Imperial College London, as a compulsory requirement for admission. However, secondary school teachers are conflicted because other top universities, including Oxford University, are not accepting the grade for at least the next 2 years. The grade has been introduced amid fears that as so many students achieve straight As, it would be too hard to differentiate between the elite of academia and the other high-achieving students.

There is a split between professional opinions on how effective the A* can be in the current educational climate. Mike Nicholson, admissions officer at Oxford University warns that sixth form tutors do not yet have the experience nor the authority to judge who might achieve the A*. He is delaying recognition of A* predicted grades on sixth form tutor reports until 2012, which is when the government’s changes for A Levels as a whole are scheduled to be completed. In contrast, the Cambridge University admission officer, Geoff Parks, immediately welcomed the A* as an effective way of picking out those good enough for the elite universities such as Oxbridge, and those more suited to other institutions. He said: “We hope the A* will be a fairer system because those who get into Cambridge will have higher grades than those that don’t,” which is an understandable concern for anyone employed to select the very best of candidates.

Warwick University is adopting a selective policy on the A*, in that it should be significant for science applicants but ignored for those of humanities. The reason that pro-vice-chancellor Michael Whitby gives for this discrimination is that academic work for humanities disciplines such as Literature, History and Philosophy are harder to assess than sciences and maths, because it is subjective. Sixth form tutors had until October 15th – the deadline for Oxbridge applications – to decide whether or not to predict the A* grade for prospective students for the next academic year.

Cambridge University and Imperial College London are already asking for at least one A* from prospective students. Meanwhile, Oxford University and Warwick University are suspending acceptance of the grade until 2012 at the earliest. Tim Hands, a tutor at Magdalen College School, an independent boys school for pupils aged between 7 and 18, has doubts that admission officers, even at Oxford, would be able to ignore A* predicted candidates. He also warned that “universities should be transparent about what they are doing”, no doubt because the issue of communicating vital information about a student’s academic ability is the very issue which is creating problems and conflicts in this situation.

The difference in how the leading universities have reacted to the same governmental change is a sign of turbulent times in the world of academia. The A Level itself is being modified and will eventually be replaced in reaction to criticism that they are not hard enough. One such modification is this A*, which is only awarded to students achieving 90% and higher on all their modules. Another is taking two instead of three modules a year in both years of the A Level, making it harder for students who pull their grades up through retakes.

Furthermore, vocational versions of A level subjects will be introduced for students not wishing to go to university, for example, diplomas in humanities, sciences and languages. Such changes reflect the worries from top institutions that the standards of education are slipping. These extra academic hurdles for students are born of governmental limitations on admission numbers. There has been a record 10% rise in applications this year. Meanwhile, the government has limited the amount of extra places being offered from universities to 10,000.

This has put a huge strain on the biggest and most popular universities, like Oxbridge. Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “Tens of thousands could lose out. Well qualified students want to go to university and the universities want them. We need more funding”. These claims show the undercurrent of resentment that is rife in the hearts of students and tutors. Such problems with admissions reflect poorly on Labour, who pledged to deliver more opportunities in education. The party stated: “Half of 18 to 30 year-olds have degrees under Labour’s government”, but the reality is a £200 million deficit in governmental funds this year, which has remained undiscovered until the recent economic turmoil.

By Luke Sutherland

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