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Will new online guidance on ‘facilitating subjects’ help or hinder fair access to highly-selective universities?

  • 24 May 2019
  • By Hugo Dale-Harris

The Russell Group have just changed their official guidance for school students. They have moved away from a list of traditional ‘facilitating’ subjects. Instead, they are offering an online tool that gives course-specific guidance on what subjects are essential or useful to get onto different university disciplines. The new Informed Choices website is designed to be less open to misinterpretation than the old list was. 

They also argue that this service is “targeted towards supporting less advantaged pupils, who may not always receive the same level of advice as their better off peers.” All power to their elbow. The site is simple to use, and has apparently been tested with Year 10 students.

There is a course specific breakdown of essential and useful subjects to study. School subject choice is a key part of the access problem, as disadvantaged students are less likely to have picked the ‘right subjects’ and there exist obvious false friends for those who aren’t in the know, such as Law A-level, which is not considered as useful as other subjects by many of the most competitive university Law courses.

The initiative is welcome. But to me it poses two key issues.

Firstly, won’t this service be used more by the already well-supported school students? This resource is much more likely to be used by schools that can afford careers advisers and by parents and teachers with time and knowledge of higher education. Along with every other service, the risk is that it won’t close the gap in information, advice and guidance because it will be most used by the most advantaged young people. However, a single simple advice source is a welcome improvement to students having to trawl through individual university sites.

The launch needs to be followed up with a push to make sure it is used in schools which send low numbers of pupils to high-tariff universities. Concerted outreach efforts will be needed to make this happen in places where resources are tight and where Year 10 pupils are getting used to the idea of going to any university, rather than thinking about which kind of university they might go to.

Secondly, this resource continues to embed the idea that only students with the right subjects will be able to do certain courses. This attitude will not allow for fair access to highly-selective courses, as – with the best will in the world – more privileged students will continue to dominate ‘the right subjects’ and disadvantaged pupils will continue to have not been aware, or not been able to take up these subjects.

Enlightened universities should be looking to expand their intake to include students who didn’t pick the right subjects, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds where getting into the most selective universities was unlikely to be a consideration for them in Year 10. Students who show potential despite having the wrong subjects are an obvious target for foundation courses that are being increasingly offered by highly-selective universities.

As such, there is a real risk that the new Informed Choices website might serve to put off older students who have already picked the wrong subjects rather than helping younger students with their choices. I hope that the Russell Group will monitor who is using their site to check if this is happening – and that they will investigate ways to offer guidance on their website to these students. Otherwise, as is so often the case, this latest initiative may become just another tool for the sharp-elbowed parents of the already advantaged.

1 comment

  1. Seren says:

    I agree that the new interactive website could possibly lead pupils who have already made their post-16 subject choices to believe that they only have a limited set of university courses available to them.
    A link at the bottom of each university course page saying something such as ‘ Love to do …….. but your subjects are not listed? Click here!’ could be a start at tackling this issue. This could take the reader to a list of alternative routes such as foundation courses and years.

    I also think it would be worth making it crystal clear that these are general trends of Russell Group subject entry requirements, not every RG university always requires them.

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