Anna Fazackerley: It’s time to get tough on choosing soft subjects

But research published this week by Policy Exchange may make them wish they
hadn’t opened their mouths. Data obtained from 27 leading research
universities shows for the first time that the vast majority of them favour
traditional A-levels over “soft” subjects, ranging from art and
media studies to the more serious-sounding law, business studies and
accounting. Yet, crucially, universities are failing to tell students and
parents of this.

Currently, only Cambridge University and the London School of Economics
publish lists of “non-preferred” subjects. Other universities
offer no clear advice on their websites about subjects that may count
against students. Based on last year’s statistics, if Matthew wants to read
law at one of our leading universities, law A-Level will be a major
disadvantage at many institutions, and the fact that he has unknowingly
plumped for two subjects that are non-preferred will almost certainly rule
him out of the game altogether.

The scandal here is not that top universities are disregarding certain
A-levels. If tutors think a subject is inadequate preparation for one of
their courses they are absolutely right not to accept it. There is no shame
in top universities striving for excellence. The real scandal is the lack of
transparency. Vice chancellors have batted this issue off, saying that
admissions are complicated and subject preferences vary from department to
department. This is certainly true. But nonetheless universities must go the
extra mile in spelling out their subject preferences to teachers, pupils and

This is critical if the leading research universities genuinely want a large
pool of bright underprivileged pupils to fish in ? because the second
scandal here is that students at non-selective state schools are the ones
who are most likely to trip up by choosing their A-levels badly. Many
independent and grammar schools don’t even offer soft subjects. And, if a
gifted state school student is adamant that she wants to take media studies
because it is less stuffy than all the more traditional subjects, she is
much less likely to be warned that this might reduce her chances of
acceptance at certain universities.

Advice about higher education in many state schools is in a parlous state.
While sixth form tutors at certain independent schools regularly pick up the
telephone to heads of admissions at universities to check exactly what they
are looking for, many state schools do not offer even the most basic advice.
If we are ever to live up to the much-trumpeted agenda to widen access to
higher education in this country this must be addressed as a matter of

Yet the finger of blame should not be pointed just at universities and
schools. The government has failed too. It has been so busy protecting
itself by denying that soft subjects even exist, that it has failed to give
a clear signal that subject choice matters.

The big research universities have taken such a hammering from the media and
politicians on admissions that it is understandable they are hesitant about
putting their heads above the parapet on A-Level choice. They have been
slammed for not letting in enough state school students, and then booted up
the backside for being prejudiced against independent schools. They see soft
subjects as yet another painful social engineering story in the making and
the result is a resounding silence on subject preference.

Yet there is clearly an issue of social justice here. Subject choice has
become yet another obstacle that may prevent less privileged children
reaching the top of our higher education system. So why aren’t ministers
shouting about this? The answer is that the mission of widening
participation is to push children from less advantaged families into
university ? any university ? to move us closer to that mythical 50 per cent
target. This obsession with numbers misses an absolutely vital social point.
It is not enough for talented state school students to gain access to a
university. We should be doing everything in our power to make sure that the
brightest students can gain access to the very best universities. Right now,
for many students, soft subjects are barring the door.

Let’s stop sniggering about media studies and take action. The hard truth
about soft subjects can’t be ignored any longer.

The writer is senior adviser on universities at the think-tank the Policy

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