The nail-biting apprehension which once accompanied students’ visits to school to pick up and then coyly open their results statements may well belong to an earlier and more innocent age. In this digital age, students will already know whether they have been offered a place at their university of choice. If not, they may have been invited to consider offers from other universities, as institutions scramble to compete and fill their quotas, maximising their income. It seems that the importance of A level grades has become less significant as students move on to their next, more grown-up phase.

Some examples from this summer’s round of results and applications suggests there has been a sea change in the way universities recruit. Unconditional offers have become a familiar sight, even for courses like architecture and biomedicine. The offers often come with a requirement for the student to put the university as their first choice, putting pressure on the young person to select an arguably lower-ranked university in return for ‘being able to faff about’ in their summer term rather than revise. It reduces student motivation. The number of British students enrolling on university degrees with foundation years has almost tripled in the last five years (2012/13 to 2017/18) from 10,430 to 30,030. “It is hard not to conclude that universities are using foundation years to create four-year degrees in order to entice students who do not otherwise meet their standard entry criteria,” suggests a recent government-commissioned report.

The universities in question are unlikely to be Russell group members, but even they have been reported to lower their entry requirements and offer foundation year courses to get students on board and signed up. “Russell Group universities are preparing to admit students with grades as low as CDD, by giving them an extra year of tuition to get them up to speed,” writes the Education Editor of The Telegraph (11 August 2019).

So, what do A level grades mean now? ‘Top’ universities maintain their status and standing by insisting on the highest grades for the most in demand courses, but equally are prepared to shift where supply is insufficient. University admission is a question of economics.

Equally, the new A levels have resulted in a new standard, with grades being awarded for ever lower raw marks: can 54% really be an A grade and 34% a C, as it was for the Maths paper this summer? There must be something amiss if this is to be the published criteria. Whatever happened to the UMS (Uniform Mark Scheme)?

Employers are sceptical about degrees since a 2:1 is now pretty much the norm and more firsts than ever are being awarded. Once upon a time in a faraway land, employers would refer to A level grades as a benchmark; A level being the much-vaunted gold standard. Now it seems that soft skills are as important as good academic grades, if not more so.

The world is changing fast; the sand is shifting. Taking A level courses is merely a rite of passage en route to a career. This must surely be the case when a student can enrol for a civil engineering degree with one E grade.

Whatever happened to retakes and really learning the subject?


This article was written by John Corcut, Director of Studies at Bales College, London.