Reform must involve all universities

28th September 2012 at 01:00
And changes to A levels should have three key principles at heart, says Alex Bols

The cloud of this August's fall in the number of students achieving the highest A-level grades had at least one silver lining: we were spared the annual debate over falling standards.

It may have been Michael Gove's desire to head this off that prompted his decision to review A levels and to indicate that he would like to see greater content input from what he describes as "respected" universities.

With the consultation on these reform proposals recently closed, it is worth reflecting on what exactly we want from A levels and the ways in which universities can play a part.

For me, from a university perspective, there are three core principles that should be at the heart of A-level reform. First, A levels should prepare students for life and employment as well as university. Second, all universities should be involved in signing off A levels and not just a select few. Third, A levels must aid universities to effectively identify the best students for the course that most suits them.

The first of these dictates that A levels need to be stand-alone qualifications that prepare students for life and employment as well as university. Important as they are to universities, A levels must be more than a staging post on the way to higher education. This can only be achieved if universities are aided by others, such as teachers and employers, in shaping A-level content.

The second point seems self-evident, but we have seen worrying rhetoric that university involvement will be limited to a relatively small, self-selecting cohort of institutions. Clearly content should be developed by the best and most respected academics in each field, but it is important that we recognise that this expertise will come from a range of institutions.

Different universities and colleges meet the needs of the economy in different, but important, ways. While it would benefit the universities that I represent, such as St Andrews, Bath and the University of London's Institute of Education, to have A-level students coming in with strong research skills above all else, UK plc as a whole would suffer if this were the exclusive focus of 16-18 study. We need to draw on expertise found in HE, not just that which best fits a traditionalist view of academia.

Third, A levels should help universities to identify talented students. The real challenge is how to differentiate between the most able students without discriminating against the remainder. The key to creating effective assessments will be in balancing the ability to stretch candidates with the need to cater for a range of abilities.

Universities are definitely keen to be more involved in A levels, so how might this work? For the 1994 Group of universities, it is crucial that this should combine overall sign-off with subject-specialist engagement. There has always been a degree of university involvement but this needs to be more transparent, both in terms of how they are involved and on what basis the HE body is selected.

The final question I want to pose is this: who should ultimately be responsible for A levels? If they have a purpose wider than just facilitating university entrance then the ultimate responsibility for A levels does not lie with universities - it lies with government. This means that there will need to be some form of public accountability in whatever structure is developed.

As ever, acting quickly must be balanced against acting effectively. It is essential that all revised A levels are introduced at the same time, rather than staggering implementation, even if this takes slightly longer. A levels are too important to get wrong and a worrying risk of failure is implied by trying to do too much, too fast. Reform at a measured pace that gives adequate time for ironing out any flaws is essential.

If A levels are to remain the gold standard of post-16 education they must be rigorous, respected and fit for purpose. Universities are keen to engage with these reforms and provide our expertise. We want to help deliver A levels that are stand-alone qualifications and meet the three principles outlined above, but also the needs of students, the economy and society as a whole.

Alex Bols is executive director of the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities.

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