August 11, 2008

A-Levels ‘Waning’ As Universities Go for Alternative Entry Qualifications

By Moira Sharkey

THE importance of A-levels for would-be students appears to be waning,with new figures showing up to three quarters of freshers don't need the qualification to get into some Welsh universities.

As thousands of pupils prepare to receive their exam results on Thursday, a snapshot of the nation's universities has revealed institutions are increasingly looking for different entry requirements.

Between 10%and 75% of new admissions at a range of Welsh universities last year did not have A-levels for reasons including: Entry to specialist colleges like the Royal Welsh College ofMusic and Drama is based on auditions and practical or music exams; the growing popularity of the Welsh Baccalaureate; and many undergraduates including mature students have got into university with access, foundation studies and diploma courses.

Experts in education and business agree that while traditional exams should always have a place in the British education system, the shift to other qualifications is part of a wider trend to better prepare students for university or employment.

In Glyndwr University, Wrexham, up to 75% of undergraduates were admitted with alternatives to A-levels. That compared with 26% at Lampeter University, 30% in the University of Glamorgan and 40%at Uwic.

At Swansea University there is no differentiation made between any qualification recognised by the university application body UCAS' tariff system. The system offers equivalent points to students taking one of about 30 courses fromA-levels to diplomas and the Welsh Baccalaureate.

Figures were not available for largest university.

David Phillips, chief executive of The Cardiff University-Wales' Wales Quality Centre (WQC), which works closely with companies and organisations throughout Wales, says a variation in qualifications was important as employers are no longer looking just for good examresults.

"Employers obviously want staff with a good grasp of basic skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic," he said.

"However, they are no longer just looking for good academic results.

"They also need school leavers with good communication and interpersonal skills which they can transfer to the work place. School leavers with practical as well as academic skills will often have an advantage over those who don't have both."

For the most academically gifted pupils who want to go on to higher education rather than straight into employment they too need to raise the bar and do more than A-levels, according to Yasmin Sarwar associate principal of Cardiff Sixth Form.

The tutorial college, which is the first specialist sixth form in Wales, will be the first in the country to offer a new post-16 qualification set by the University of Cambridge. The top students will take the two-year qualification, the Cambridge Pre-U diploma alongside A-levels and that is on top of students being involved in the international Goodwill Ambassador Program, which offers them the chance to travel to a developing country for work experience or to do some voluntary work.

Ms Sarwar said: "In general, students takingA-levels at schools are spoon fed.

"The priority is getting them through the exams and with courses now being modular they can re-take papers to get the best grade possible so the focus is on having the knowledge to pass the exams.

"The problem with that system is students do not have the skills to think ontheir feet toevaluate, or be independent learners - skills which are needed at university. Even students getting topmarks at A-level can struggle on tough degree courses."

Recent figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that 7.8% of full-time first degree entrants dropped out of university after their first year in 2005/6. This was higher than the UK average of 7.1%.

Ms Sarwar added: "A-levels are the cornerstone of the British education system and should remain.

"We shouldn't change that system but students need more than just A-levels."

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