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Why do some universities make higher grade offers than others?

If you’re tempted to reply “Because the top universities get more applicants”, I encourage you to consider this more carefully.

What is meant by a “top” university? In my experience, those who refer to the Russell Group as “the top UK universities” usually don’t know that the Group originated as a kind of trade union, for some “established” universities to defend their interests after polytechnics were given university status in 1992. More importantly, I know no criterion by which the 24 Russell Group members can be distinguished as an élite from the other UK universities. Moreover, if you look at the published 2016 entry requirements for MEng in Electronic Engineering, for example, of the 18 unis that require AAA or above, 6 are non-members.

If we define “top universities” as those which are research-intensive and have gained a high reputation for research, we are on safer ground, even though “top” for research doesn’t necessarily mean “top” for teaching. Big name unis are so because they have established a wide popular reputation over many years for producing top-class research.

However, even here caution is needed. The latest research assessment, the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, in which panels of professors judged the quality of research in their specialist fields, produced results that don’t match the popular prejudice. The Times Higher Education (THE) produced a rank order for each subject from these results. In Politics, for instance, Essex (entry requirement ABB-BBB) came top, while in English Language and Literature only 5 of the top 12 in the THE list were among the 11 unis with the highest entry requirements (AAA or above). Indeed, Swansea, whose research was judged to be on a par with that of UCL, has very different entry requirements (respectively BBB-BBC and AAA plus an AS).

Here is a hint of the economic forces at work in determining entry requirements. There are two major factors in the number of applications received and the resulting price in each subject: how big a uni’s brand name is among the general population; how attractive the location is in the experience or imagination of applicants.
An applicant who is looking for a world-class research department might find generous offers away from the biggest names or urban centres: eg Strathclyde for Physics (1st in the THE list, but offering BBB) or Aberystwyth for Politics (7th in the THE list, but offering 300pts=BBB/ABC). The latter is a well established department: it founded the discipline of International Relations in 1919.

There are some unis that might be suspected of inflating entry requirements to boost their brand image. Several years ago I heard an admissions’ tutor at an ex-polytechnic state that they were raising their offer for Business Management to BBB in the knowledge that they would not require it to be met. I suspect that Exeter has just raised the entry requirement for English at its Cornwall campus to an unusually large 3 grade range (A*AA-ABB) to put it more on a par in the applicants’ mind with the same subject at the Exeter campus (A*AA-AAB).

The message to applicants is: don’t be misled by popular prejudice about uni or location, as reflected in entry requirements. Applicants should apply to universities that best suit their individual interests and that are realistic in terms of the grades likely to be required.

Posted by Phillip Rogerson on Thu, 2 Feb 2017



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Philip Rogerson read Classics at Oxford. He has taught in a wide range of institutions: from UN (refugee camps in Jordan) to university (Oxford). Philip has been an HMC/ISI inspector of schools and has was Director of Higher Education and Careers at Sherborne School from 1997 to 2017.

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