The magic AAB

I was interested to read Peter Scott’s critique of the “government’s decision to allow universities to recruit as many AAB students as they like, while sharply constraining the overall number of students”

To quote his article:

There are two fundamental objections to this policy – one educational and the second ethical. The first is that universities have always chosen students according to their future potential, not past performance. Of course, A-level grades are important evidence of potential. But they should never be treated as decisive evidence, even in an age of mass higher education when computer-generated offers are almost inevitable.

To rely on A-level grades alone is, in effect, further to privilege the already privileged, to give disproportionate rewards to those whose way in life has been smooth. The correlation between school performance and social advantage is too plain to deny. For years universities have attempted, feebly perhaps, to level the playing field by making differential offers. Now, on the fiat of David Willetts, they are no longer so free to do so.


The ethical objection to the government’s AAB apartheid takes me back to Popper on the Viennese streets 80 years ago. The arguments for widening participation, and for (genuinely) fair access, are usually seen as rooted in ideology of the kind that Popper disapproved of (“social engineering” is the standard put-down). That is only partly true, although unlike Popper I would not disavow collective action to secure social justice. The argument is also about individuals. First, is it fair to offer students an enticement, in the shape of a generous bursary or an attractive fee waiver, in the expectation that they will get AABs, only to withdraw it if they slip a grade (and since when have A-level examiners been infallible?).

But it goes deeper still. The vice-chancellor who swept the “tail” into oblivion from that restaurant table, and the vice-chancellors now struggling to “manage” their AAB entrants, are behaving in the same way as the zealots of right and left who battled in the streets. They are putting an idea, an abstraction, a policy construct, before the lives of real people who are born, live, love and are bound to die.

As Scott observes, these aren’t abstract decisions, made as if we were all so many players of the Sims and presiding over our tiny virtual kingdoms. Instead, these are decision that affect people’s lives – decisions that can make a huge difference to someone’s life and future.

And, indeed, I was one of those people. I don’t have great A-levels, courtesy of the kind of sixth-form experience that screams “mitigating circumstances”. I ended up doing an extra year at a sixth-form college just so I had a set of A-levels that wouldn’t get me instantly rejected from anywhere I applied. On the basis of my A-levels alone, I would be one of those students on restricted intake. However, my sixth-form college were able to give me excellent references and the University of Liverpool, having met me, took a chance on me. Three years later I graduated with a First in English Language and Literature. Eighteen months after that I graduated with an MA in Corpus Linguistics. And now, ten years after doing my first set of A-levels, I find myself writing up my doctoral thesis, presenting at international conferences and teaching. I’d like to think that despite my poor performance at A-level, I’ve not done too badly in academia.

A-levels are just one way to predict someone’s future performance, but they don’t necessarily map onto academic ability. They’re a crude index at best – and at worst, fail to distinguish the students who will thrive in a university environment from those that won’t. Ultimately, it’s in universities’ interests to attract the students who will flourish in the academic setting they offer, and fetishising A-levels above other ways of evaluating potential students does not necessarily do that.