Wrong A-level choices prevent poorer students gaining elite university places | Education

Students from poorer backgrounds may be held back by their A-level subject choices when applying for respected degree courses, such as law, at leading universities.

New research suggests that those taking vocational A-levels in law, accounting or business are less likely to attend elite universities than students who opt for traditional academic subjects such as sciences, mathematics, languages, history and geography.

Catherine Dilnot, at University College London’s Institute of Education, analysed the data on all 475,000 students in England who entered UK universities with three A-levels between 2010 and 2012. She found that those taking academic subjects tended to go to more high-status universities. In addition, some A-level choices seemed to disadvantage certain students. Those taking a law degree, for example, were more likely to be at universities that scored lower on league tables if they had studied A-level law rather than a subject such as maths or science.

The Russell Group, which represents 24 of the UK’s leading universities, publishes a list of “facilitating” subjects – those that are more frequently required for entry to degree courses than others. But Dilnot’s research suggests students may not realise that taking non-facilitating subjects could hinder their efforts to gain a place on more reputable courses at high-ranking universities.

“Schools and colleges can give clear advice on A-level subject choices to those hoping to do degrees in subjects with prerequisites,” Dilnot said. “It is much harder for them to know how to advise those applying for subjects such as business and law, which do not have required A-levels.” She suggested that students enrolling on degree courses that did not require specific A-level subjects were particularly affected.

Studies show that vocational A-levels, such as law, are disproportionately favoured by students from lower-income backgrounds and are taken much more widely at further education and sixth form colleges than at private schools.

“A student who aspires to a career in a professional services firm might easily think taking an A-level in law, accounting or business would be helpful in achieving that goal,” Dilnot said. “But it may be that choosing these subjects is actually unhelpful in high-status university admissions. So an apparently sensible subject choice for students wishing to prepare for a professional career may, in fact, put them at a disadvantage.”

The findings come ahead of the publication of this year’s A-level results this Thursday, which will trigger the annual stampede for places at universities through clearing.

There is emerging evidence that an increasing number of students are now thinking twice about a university place as they weigh the benefits of a degree against the debt that they will accrue. More students are applying to study vocational subjects, such as law and business, in the belief that they will provide a smooth pathway to a career. But some less vocational subjects, such as history and the humanities, have seen a drop in applications.

Figures published by Ucas in February revealed that 564,190 people had applied for UK higher education courses for 2017, a decrease of 5% compared with the same point last year.

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