Students warned against taking "soft" subjects

Katie Spenceley 20 January 2008

Admissions tutors at leading universities have admitted creating blacklists of undesirable A level subjects.

They have also said that they are likely to reject applicants who take two or more of them.

The list of “soft” courses contains over twenty subjects, including Dance, Media Studies and Home Economics.

Universities say that these subjects do not adequately prepare students for the academic rigour of further study.

Cambridge University’s Director of Admissions Geoff Parks told the Times that it was not the individual A-levels that caused concern, but taking too many of these subjects:

“We know there are bright students on track to get As but in subject combinations that essentially rule them out.”

The Schools Minister Jim Knight was quick to refute this claim by telling the BBC:

“We simply do not recognise the label ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ A-levels – all subjects are rigorously measured against each other to maintain standards.”

Competition is becoming increasingly tough at the top universities, with 94% of the students who entered Cambridge last year securing more than three A grades at A-level.

These lists of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects may be one more way for Universities to distinguish between applicants.

Concerns have been raised about the ways this will affect state school students.

A study by the Russell Group of 20 leading universities shows that the blacklist affects students in state education most severely.

In media studies, for example, 93 per cent of the students were from non-selective state schools.

The reverse is true regarding science, languages and maths.

In the state sector, fewer than one in 10 A-level pupils in non-selective schools take sciences compared with one third at grammar and independent schools.

These reports come at a time when further qualifications are being proposed as a way to encourage A-level students to develop their research and independent learning skills.

The new qualification, called an “Extended Project” (EP) will be an optional extra for A-level students.

However, for students of the new diplomas beginning in September, the EP will be compulsory.

Extended Projects are designed with emphasis on the student’s enjoyment of learning rather than grades.

The projects are an extra way of judging students’ academic ability in their university applications.

The scheme has been piloted in Hampshire, and some teachers believe that it is a good way of encouraging independent learning.

But universities such as Cambridge have expressed doubts that it will be possible to ensure that the work is the candidates’ own.

Katie Spenceley