Do subject requirements of degree courses impose unfair or inappropriate constraints on who can apply, and impair efforts to widen access to higher education?


Do subject requirements of degree courses impose unfair or inappropriate constraints on who can apply, and impair efforts to widen access to higher education?
This project will investigate the extent to which the specification of subject qualifications for entry to particular courses at universities unnecessarily restricts applications from potential students and inhibits efforts to widen social class access to higher education, as well as the gender mix of STEM subjects’ student populations. It will seek to establish the extent to which specific entry requirements are supported by evidence of their correlation to degree performance.

Most students on most programmes of study meet the traditional requirements for their subjects, we will seek out the exceptions, whether individuals or entire programmes, which do not conform to the traditional pattern; by investigating their performance, we will establish whether the traditional requirements are justified. Evidence from a pilot study looking at civil engineering in the University of Bath indicates more than this – that the study of some subjects which are not traditionally part of preparation for civil engineering can lead to a better performance at degree level. This has important consequences, not only for supporting breadth of advanced level education, but also for supporting a breadth of thinking in higher education - to lead out creativity and imagination, to provide leadership and innovation, rather than merely training students for entering graduate jobs.

As an example of an effect of traditional requirements, most engineering departments require Physics A-level, yet this is intrinsically prejudicial against women, who are far less likely than men to study the subject. This is almost certainly a social issue governed by gender pressures, but may also be related to societal resources, and so work against the goal of widening participation in higher education by able people from all backgrounds. Our observation is that not having studied Physics A-level does not in fact provide any measurable disadvantage. Some departments emphasise ‘Further Maths’, which is even more prejudicial, yet the initial study shows this to give no advantage at degree level. Whilst the initial evidence indicates that the gains from broader study are greater than those from additional similar study such as ‘Further Maths’ or more science subjects, it is necessary to find out to what extent this applies to other successful programmes in other disciplines.

This issue also has important implications for widening access to higher education by social class, since the most selective universities require top grades in traditional science and Maths subjects for entry to STEM courses, and these grades will disproportionately be achieved by pupils in private and selective schools.

The initial work on this project will use data from within the University of Bath, but we will also work with the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) (in Bristol and Cheltenham) to obtain anonymized evidence for different subjects in different universities. We will test the degree outcomes of students in selected STEM disciplines against their A-level subjects at entry, and undertake further analysis of entry qualifications by social class, gender and school type.

We will establish a method of investigation which can be applied more broadly, and an evidence base to demonstrate the pressing need for new decisions at policy level (e.g. by accrediting bodies) about subject requirements. The developed methodology will enable the development of government policy mandating an evidence-based approach, so that subject requirements can no longer be used to implement conscious or unconscious prejudice against widening participation and fair access. This will support moves to help UK higher education to move away from out-dated paradigms, and provide an education that is fit for the future.
Effective start/end date19/02/1818/02/21