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Universities’ views on best qualifications


New research reveals that admissions officers at UK universities consider the International Baccalaureate (IB) to be the best preparation for university and future employability – and are disappointed by the government’s U-turn on providing funding to extend it.

The government had promised to provide an IB school in every local authority but has now withdrawn the support, to the disappointment of two-thirds of admissions officers. In addition, admissions officers feel there is a lack of government commitment to maintain A-levels.

The new diplomas are welcomed as universities generally believe a wider choice of post-16 qualifications will be better for the country, with only 16% of those surveyed in the third annual survey of admissions officers by ACS International Schools saying it would not.

But many are concerned by suggestions that the Diploma could completely replace the A-level, with 63% saying that A-levels should not be phased out at all. A sizable minority, 45%, expressed concern that such dramatic changes in exam choices is treating this generation as ‘guinea pigs’.

The IB continues to be highly regarded by admissions officers, with more citing the IB as the best preparation to thrive at university than all other qualifications combined. Over a third, 35%, specifically name the IB as providing the best preparation for students to thrive at university, compared to 18% who cite A-levels. Just 8% feel the Cambridge Pre-U is the best preparation for university, and 6% the new diplomas. A third were unable to express a view at this time, perhaps due to the newness of some of the qualifications.

Over two thirds, 68%, believe that having more state schools and colleges offering the IB would be effective in encouraging a wider group of people to engage and thrive in higher education.

Responses also suggest that the IB has continued to grow in popularity, with 55% reporting a noticeable increase in applications from students with the IB. This is the third year in a row that a sizeable number of admissions officers have seen such an increase.

Although welcoming the new diplomas, a lot of uncertainty was expressed, with a quarter of admissions officers still feeling unable to comment on the subject, despite their planned introduction in September.

Opinion was mixed as to whether they would provide a sufficient academic challenge; 35% believe they probably would provide enough challenge for academically gifted students but 28% say they will not.

Strong support remains for maintaining the A-level, but there are continuing concerns over how well it prepares students for university and its ability to distinguish between the best students. Over half of respondents, 53%, do not think that A levels will be perfectly fit for purpose even with the new A-star grade, which is to be introduced in 2010.

One admissions officer commented: “It would be good to see the IB rolled out further and run in tandem with A-level. A-levels need to recover creative thinking elements and skills needed for university study.”

Asked their views on the new Cambridge Pre-U, 37% do not feel that it offers a ‘very different set of values to A-levels, the IB and the new Diplomas’. A further 39% do not feel they know enough about it to comment. The responses highlighted that many lack information on the qualification, but individual comments suggest that most would approach it with an open mind and give it chance to develop.

ACS International Schools Superintendent Malcolm Kay said: “Preparation of graduates for success in the global market should be a high priority for all educators. It is doubtful that educational programmes that have their roots in traditional long-established practices can deliver in a world that is moving at exponential pace. Education must take on the mantle of internationalism.”

Admissions officers were generally positive about the range of qualifications but expressed concerns over how their introduction was being handled. While supporting the new qualifications, many were concerned about the lack of effective communication around them.

One stressed that, ‘students should receive good advice and guidance at an early stage as to the best qualification for their intended career path’ and another said they were ‘worried about the confusion of qualifications and the lack of information and guidance available’.

“There is a primary need for the public to understand the educational programmes that are being provided for our children,” says Kay.

“Drift of communication about the values of existing A-levels and the new UK diplomas is causing uncertainty.

“The global market requires global solutions and global educational systems. How else can the young people of today be expected to achieve success in their future careers?”


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