"A Levels are a crucial way that universities select candidates for their courses, so it is important that these qualifications meet the needs of higher education institutions."
This was the position set out by the Government in November 2010 in ‘The Importance of Teaching – the Schools White Paper’. Cambridge Assessment agreed that Higher Education (HE) should have a greater role in the design of post-16 qualifications in the UK and we explored how best HE could re-engage with A Level design, consulting widely with academics through colloquia, seminars and discussion groups.
In June 2011 we produced the policy paper ‘A Better Approach to Higher Education / Exam Board Interactions for Post-16 Qualifications’ laying out how Government could best support such an approach, and how greater involvement of university academics in setting the content of A Levels would both be a better guarantee of school standards and improve the university admissions process. Over the past 40 years, the Government has taken an ‘ever-increasing’ role in setting exam standards which has led to a ‘divorce’ between the exams and their main users, the universities.
Our proposals to restore the link between universities and A Levels were welcomed by the Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, who said: "Universities know about the strengths and weaknesses of their entry qualifications, such as A Levels. So it makes sense for universities and exam boards to work closer together on qualification design, just as they used to in the past. It could help improve confidence in the exam system and help pupils prepare for university life. So I am very grateful to Cambridge Assessment for showing one way how this might happen."
Our policy paper argues that if university dons set the content of A Levels, with exam boards focusing on how to test that knowledge, the state could greatly reduce its role in setting exam standards. This would return A Levels to their original role as the key filter for university entrance, guaranteeing that school-leavers arrive at university with the academic knowledge they will need to succeed in university courses. And changes along these lines would end the constant tinkering with syllabuses, as exams would only need to change when leading academics felt change was needed.
Government strategy has since picked up key aspects of the HE engagement proposals explored in our programme of work, with the Secretary of State for Education setting out the new landscape on 3 April 2012. The exams regulator, Ofqual, launched a consultation on A Levels on 19 June 2012.