For years there has been much debate over the best subjects to take to get into university. “What A-levels do I need to study law?” or “do I have to take three science A-levels to study medicine?” are some of the most common questions asked by sixth form students, and until recently there has been no clear answer. Some argued that business studies and IT courses were strong qualifications for a business or economics-based degree, but warned against art and design, media studies and other more creative A-levels. Others would have you believe that taking any ‘vocational’ course at A-level, whether it was photography, business, or even law, would be hugely detrimental to a university application, even if the course was in the same subject for which a candidate was applying.

Students trying to make the right A-level choices to give them the best chance at gaining a university place under extremely competitive conditions have been faced with a bewildering array of ‘new-fangled’ A-level courses and a cacophony of mixed-messages about which to take.

Now the Russell Group consisting of the UK’s 20 leading universities including Oxford and Cambridge has published a comprehensive leaflet entitled “Informed Choices”, containing guidance on issues just such as these.
For the first time, prospective students have real, concrete guidance from the universities themselves to help them make astute A-level choices to aid their application for the university degree they hope to study. The guide contains few surprises, but reinforces the rumours and newspaper articles that have circulated for years suggesting that the top UK universities frown upon so called “soft subjects”. A box containing subjects such as English, maths, separate sciences and languages is labelled “facilitating subjects”, with students being advised they should take at least two of these to maximise their chances of getting into a top university.

The pamphlet also quite openly uses the phrase “soft” subjects to describe A-levels such as media studies, business studies, art and design and photography, warning that “some caution may be needed” when applying to university courses with these A-levels.

Experts and politicians alike have welcomed the guide as a great help for students, with Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust education charity, heralding it as an equaliser for “bright non-privileged students in particular, who all too often do not receive the support and guidance they need at this key juncture in their lives”.

The importance of such a positive step cannot be underestimated as a means of communicating key information about applications to those who may not be in a position to receive such advice from friends, family, or even teachers, and it will be an excellent result if the private school bias we see in university place allocation is redressed as a result.

But one also wonders what impact this will have on those “soft” vocational courses students are so strongly warned against. If such subjects are so poorly regarded by universities and so unhelpful in preparing students for university courses then why do they exist at all, and how will they survive if they are constantly condemned and criticised by academics and institutions at the highest levels? And is it fair for all A-level courses to be judged purely on the basis of their value for university admission? Surely there is something to be said for the passion and enjoyment a student can take from a particular course, regardless of the number of points it will help them score when filling in their UCAS form?

There is a danger in leaning even further towards academic obsession in an education system already geared so strongly towards jumping through hoops, hitting targets and climbing grade boundaries. Not all children are utterly academically focused, or desperately academically bright, and cutting out A-level courses such as art and design merely on the basis of their academic merit utterly ignores the vast creative and social function they may fulfil for such pupils. Not to mention the danger of assuming that all students should be able to state at the age of just 15 what degree course they plan to take, and ought to be steered into choosing their A-level subjects on that basis alone. The two years of sixth form are often hugely important in the academic, social and emotional development of young people, and it is important that they are given the creative freedom to pursue the subjects they are passionate about as they begin to discover a feel for what they might like to do in the future.

One supposes that some of the ‘soft’ courses described in the Russell Group leaflet are better suited for students aiming to go straight into employment after A-level; who are looking for practical, vocational training without the need for a degree. Yet the implicit sense of sneering condescension aimed at these courses by their description as “soft” subjects will surely also have an impact on the way they are seen by wider society in general, and employers in particular. One can quite imagine a school-leaver’s job application being disadvantaged by having media studies or business studies on their CV in the light of these new guidelines, yet they may in fact be the subjects that have best prepared them for the job.

And if that is not the case – if these A-levels truly are ‘soft’ options that provide students with few real tools for practical application, then why are we continuing to offer them at all? Why do we have an education system where the growth of media and art and design departments over the past decade has been explosive, with a huge increase in the numbers of students taking business studies, law and psychology A-levels, if these qualifications are going to prove useless to them in the future, whether in the world of work or in a university application? Is it simply time to stop teaching these subjects altogether?

Our education system should not be a disjointed two-tier experience where lofty elite universities simply dictate their expectations to senior schools and sixth form colleges. It simply isn’t functional to have a senior school network where media and creative subjects are some of the most popular and most commonly chosen, but a university system where these subjects are dismissed out of hand. Either universities need to realise that there is a higher demand for more emotive and creative courses, and adapt their admissions procedures and the courses they offer accordingly, or the courses offered at A-level need to be adapted to better equip students for the move to higher education. The two sides of the system ought to be working together to help students to follow their passions and pursue a university degree, not to feel trapped between the two.

And that is without even starting to go into the much more complex artistic and ethical argument about the relative merits of classifying ‘hard’, academic subjects like maths and science as ‘more valuable’ than those that nourish art, creativity and personal development…