How can we better prepare students for university?

The narrow A-level curriculum is leaving more and more new undergraduates unable to cope with the rigours of university, says Mary Curnock Cook

Earlier this autumn, over 330,000 young people made the leap from school or college to higher education. Many of them will have been ill-prepared for this transition, which involves a fundamental change in social and educational norms.

Preparing students was the topic of a lively roundtable discussion recently hosted by Sir Anthony Seldon. As vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham and a former head of Wellington College, he is unusual in having first-hand experience of teaching at schools and universities.

He reminded us that at each transition in young people’s lives, institutions often blame each other for the deficits that make the change difficult to manage.

“Most students know they are going to have to manage an enormous social change as they become responsible for their own budgets, laundry, shopping and cooking, as well as launching themselves into an entirely new social group,” said Dr Harriet Jones, a prominent expert in transitions to higher education. “But few understand that there is a different teaching and learning model at university and that this can be even more challenging than the social transition.”

I just wish they’d arrive at university able to do percentages and fractions, and structure a decent paragraph

Students who are used to a curriculum driven almost entirely by an assessment model struggle when there is no formula for passing an exam and they are expected to have more agency in their learning.

Now that nearly 50 per cent of undergraduates are the first in their family to experience higher education, more and more students are taken by surprise by the need to find their own motivations, to question and challenge, think in depth and develop the more open and enquiring mindset demanded for successful higher education.

Contributors pointed to the narrowing of the sixth-form curriculum that has resulted from the return to linear A-levels, as many students study just three subjects post-16. Squeezed sixth-form funding mean there is little resource for enrichment programmes, and take-up of post-16 maths programmes, such as core mathematics, has remained low.

In many schools and colleges, the extended project qualification is the only exposure that students get to independent enquiry and learning, and much of the rest of the curriculum is relentlessly assessment-driven.

“I just wish they’d arrive at university able to do percentages and fractions, and structure a decent paragraph,” lamented Dr Jones. Even students with strong GCSE grades in maths might have had little cause to practise their numeracy skills for two years before they start their degree courses.

The discussion also picked up differences in the levels of students’ preparedness for university depending on which qualifications were studied. Most agreed that the International Baccalaureate is the best preparation for higher education with its six subjects, including maths and a language, plus a project and core curriculum. But only a few thousand UK students apply to university with the IB each year.

A-level students might have good knowledge in specific subjects, but suffer from a narrow curriculum. The increasing number of students progressing to university with BTECs or similar applied general qualifications often have lower levels of literacy and numeracy, and flounder when faced with exams, synoptic learning and assessment, and the extensive reading and research that accompanies many degree programmes.

Universities, recruiting in a competitive market, are moving quickly to remedy these deficits. Many have introduced foundation years for weaker students and all recognise that supporting students to make the transition in the early weeks and months of their degree programme is vital to support success and reduce drop-out rates.

Schools and colleges, while acknowledging the importance of preparing students for this important transition, say they simply cannot find the extra resources to support it. And without more funding, this doesn’t seem likely to change.

Mary Curnock Cook is an independent educationalist and the former chief executive of UCAS

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