Poorer students’ subject choices may be putting them at a disadvantage, study finds
Monday, 14 August 2017
Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may be held back by their A-level subject choices when applying for prestigious courses such as law at leading universities, new findings suggest.
As part of her doctoral work
with the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) at the UCL Institute of
Education, Catherine Dilnot who is Senior Lecturer in the Oxford Brookes Business School analysed information on all English students
who entered UK universities with three A-levels in 2010, 2011 and 2012 – nearly
475,000 in total - to find out how those doing certain A-levels fared in the
competition for a university place.
Those taking A-levels in
subjects such as law, accounting or business were less likely to attend elite universities than students with traditional
academic subjects such as science, mathematics, languages, history or
Ms Dilnot found students taking academic subjects
tended to go to more prestigious universities. In addition, some subject
choices seemed to disadvantage certain students – those taking law, for
instance, were more likely to be at universities that scored lower on league
tables if they had A-level law rather than a subject such as maths or science.
Although the Russell Group of universities
publishes a list of useful or ‘facilitating’ subjects, students may not realise
that taking subjects that are not on this list could hinder them when it comes
to admission to prestigious courses at high-ranking universities, Dilnot says.
This is particularly problematic for students enrolling on degree courses which
do not require specific A-level subjects.
Vocational A-levels such as law are
disproportionately favoured by students from lower-income backgrounds and are
taken much more widely at FE and sixth form colleges than at private schools.
Research for the Social
Mobility Commission found that at leading accountancy firms,
40-50% of applicants and 60-70% of those receiving job offers were educated at
one of the 24 high-status Russell Group universities.
“Schools and colleges can give clear advice on
A-level subject choices to those hoping to do degrees in subjects with
pre-requisites: it is much harder for them to know how to advise those applying
for subjects such as business and law which do not have required A-levels,” Dilnot says.
“A student who aspires to a career in a
professional services firm might easily think that taking an A-level in law,
accounting or business would be helpful in achieving that goal. But it may be that choosing these subjects is
actually unhelpful in high status university admission.
“So an apparently sensible subject choice for
students wishing to prepare for a professional career may, in fact, put them at
The research is part of a suite of papers being
published by CLS which highlight the ways in which students’ subject choices at
14, 16 and 18 can affect their future prospects.
Further information on Catherine Dilnot's work can be found on the Oxford Brookes website.