Entry requirements and widening participation

Mature student Jon McCalmont, pictured talking to the Vice-Chancellor, came to Aber in 2008 to study for a Foundation Degree in Countryside Management, and is now half-way through a PhD in IBERS.

Mature student Jon McCalmont, pictured talking to the Vice-Chancellor, came to Aber in 2008 to study for a Foundation Degree in Countryside Management, and is now half-way through a PhD in IBERS.

11 January 2013

The Executive and VC office team are delighted to be back in action after the Christmas break, though our cheeriness was slightly reduced on our first Monday morning by the front page of the Western Mail, with a story featuring Aber (among others), suggesting we are ‘dumbing down’, by accepting students with only two Es at A level.  Some further political comment suggests we are lacking in academic rigour; and there is a general flavour that universities are being unfair by admitting students who lack the necessary qualifications or ability to follow a degree course, while perhaps excluding others who are more deserving or better qualified.

Understandably, colleagues and students are spitting tacks about this. No, much of it isn’t accurate – and we’ve published a rejoinder in the Western Mail (with the full cooperation of the paper, it must be said) containing much of the material below, to point some of this out. It doesn’t go through every last detail, which we accept some colleagues would like us to do; but we need to get the balance right between correcting the data, and making the piece so dry-as-dust that nobody’s going to read it.

On the other hand, some of what is reported is dead right. Yes, we admit students who have relatively low UCAS points, and indeed some who have no points at all, zero, nada.  We do this because at Aberystwyth we welcome people from all walks of life who prove themselves capable of succeeding in their chosen course. They can do this by a range of different routes, which may involve our highly successful Summer University, a foundation degree, recognition of life experience for mature applicants - or indeed an excellent set of A levels leading to one of our competitive scholarships.

We treat each person as an individual and consider each application on its merits. A level grades are important, but so are BTEC, the Welsh Bac, international qualifications and extra-curricular activities. Some widely accepted qualifications don’t attract UCAS points, and indeed the UCAS tariff is gradually being phased out. So, if a mature student has taken an Access course to demonstrate their readiness for Higher Education, they show up as a candidate with no UCAS points at all (technically that’s the “two Es or less” category), though they are well-qualified and highly motivated. Likewise, if a candidate had completed an Apprenticeship – no UCAS points there either.

We meet our applicants, discuss their achievements and ambitions, and invite them to visit on Open Days and departmental Visiting Days.  We treat our students like people, not numbers.  We pride ourselves on making and maintaining personal contact with applicants and building a relationship from the very start. That means we can talent spot, and try to help compensate where life might not have dealt a potential student the easiest of hands.

So, does this mean we have radically reduced our admissions requirements, as recent comments suggest? Not a bit of it. Most new recruits are still school leavers who have done very well in their exams. The average points achieved by students accepted at Aber for September 2012 was 281, the equivalent of B, B, C at A level (and remember, that’s the average – so there’s a good healthy lot of high fliers in there, by anyone’s calculation). For biology, where the Western Mail article says we’re asking for 200 points, the offer level is actually at least 280 (200 is just the part that has to come from full A levels). And far from ‘slashing’ entry requirements for genetics, for example, average points achieved rose from 323 in 2011 to 325 in 2012. However, some flexibility is needed for genuinely exceptional cases.

For 2012/13, we admitted only three students under 21 with 80 UCAS points or fewer, equivalent to two E grades or below.  Their potential was recognised and they were selected for a four year degree in Life Sciences, with a foundation year supporting students to attain educational standards equivalent to A level – providing an alternative route to a degree.

Our Summer University supports students from backgrounds where Higher Education is not the norm. Recognising the Welsh Government’s priorities for Communities First areas or students from a care/care leaver background, we provide a tailor made six-week programme. Summer University success provides guaranteed progression to an appropriate scheme at Aber, with two A levels or equivalent. Occasionally, yes, that means two A-levels at lower grades than we’d usually expect – but some of those applicants have circumstances that mean getting to school in the morning is a challenge, let along achieving a clutch of outstanding exams. And we know them – they’ve spent six whole weeks with us, worked on assignments, and made us and their families proud. Accepting these young people is not high risk and we are proud to serve Wales by recognising this talent.

Once they arrive at Aber, students are supported, but they also need to continuously prove their academic ability throughout their degree. And it can be tough; indications are that mature students, for instance, are slightly more likely to drop out. However, many of our mature students and those coming through Access and Foundation Degree routes have brilliant success stories to tell. Taking just one example, Jon McCalmont came to Aber in 2008 as a mature student, to study for a Foundation Degree in Countryside Management. Jon had no A levels, but considerable applied work experience in forestry.  He successfully completed his Foundation Degree with distinctions in every module and progressed to the BSc Countryside Management final year, graduating with First Class honours. Along the way, Jon also gained the Stapleton Prize for best final year FdSc student, the Lantra learner of the year award and the IBERS institute director's prize for the best final year dissertation in his BSc, and he is now half-way through a PhD in IBERS. Jon suggests this is ‘not too bad for someone with 5 fairly mediocre O-levels’, and we wholeheartedly agree. 

Aberystwyth is proud of the broad range of students studying with us. Our diverse student body makes the Aber experience hard to beat.  We’re delighted to say our Students’ Union support these widening access initiatives fully and enthusiastically. Not everyone can achieve their full potential at school, and it’s our job to spot the talent and add the value so more people can do so at University.

So, are standards at Aberystwyth high? Absolutely! Do we sometimes admit students without conventional qualifications or with lower than usual grades? Guilty as charged, m’lord – and seriously proud of it. Happy New Year!

April McMahon

Martin Jones