Inundated with applications from A-level students with straight A A-level results, Oxford, Cambridge and UCL have decided to set their own 2hour exams for students applying to study medicine or veterinary science. Following hot on the heels of this announcement,,2-783510,00.html came the news,,2-784621,00.html that many top law departments, including those at Oxford and Bristol are considering setting a joint entrance exam for their courses. These decisions have followed discussions with the Russell group (a group of top UK Universities, of which Imperial is one) regarding such entrance exams. It could be simply a matter of time before Imperial College starts setting its own entrance exams. Whether or not the admissions tutors here deem it necessary or not, as more of the top Universities opt to set their own entrance examinations its possible there will be increasing pressure on Imperial to do likewise in order to maintain its reputation as a top University.
The Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT) that will be sat by applicants to the Oxbridge and/or UCL medicine courses has been designed to assess general academic skills and aptitude rather than knowledge. The BMAT website claims that through not requiring any specific scientific knowledge above GCSE level, the test, which comprises a 60-minute test of aptitude and skills, a 30-minute test of scientific knowledge and a 30-minute writing task, will help level the playing field in assessing the ability of applicants from a wide range of backgrounds. This was a view echoed not only by the heads of the Universities concerned but also of a spokesperson for The Sutton Trust, which promotes efforts to persuade working-class youngsters to apply to elite universities, who said “A levels do not tell the whole story. This very much reflects the need for something to sit alongside them” adding “This is the most well-developed alternative to A-levels yet”. Oxford and Cambridge used to set their own entrance examinations but stopped after head teachers claimed that it gave unfair advantage to pupils able to afford private coaching and also that time taken to prepare for the test compromised A-level preparation time.
The A-level is, as always, under attack from all angles. It’s failure to differentiate between high calibre candidates, thus prompting the creation of the BMAT, sits alongside the more general claim that it is ‘too easy’ but also that the Maths A-level is too difficult. Other claims say further education is failing the less able students. In finding solutions to some of these problems the government seems keen to adopt a ‘one label fits all’ approach if not a ‘one size fits all’ one. A government review into education for 14-19 year olds set up largely to investigate this latter problem, has developed an outline for the idea of a single qualification, widely dubbed a Baccalaureate, for all. It would be interesting to see whether the single qualification would be able simultaneously give the less academically able students the credible qualification they need and distinguish between the high calibre candidates applying to top Universities such as Imperial. In an attempt to tackle this challenge the proposed Baccalaureate would include an essay that would be set and marked by the Universities. However the introduction of a Baccalaureate, if it happens, will be a long time coming, so for the time being at least, Universities will be forced to invent their own means for sifting out the top applicants.