Popularity of A level subjects among university students

Popularity of A level subjects among university students

Summary

The process of application and admission to universities in the UK places a relatively strong weight on the type of A level subjects taken by students. As a result, A level choice is a key factor influencing progression from secondary education to higher education (HE).

This Data Byte uses data from the recently published research report Popularity of A Level subjects among university students to explore this issue.

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What does the chart show?

The chart shows the uptake of a given A level subject among students from England who were in Year 13 in the 2015/16 academic year and started HE courses in 2016/17.

The uptake of the A level subject among all university students is shown in blue, and this is broken down underneath by the principal subject of the student’s HE course in orange (using the JACS categories). The data was sourced from a HESA extract linked to the National Pupil Database.

Selecting a different A level subject from the drop-down list will change the chart, and hovering over a bar will show the percentage of students studying the given HE subject who have the selected A level. Only the A levels that were taken by more than 1% of the A level cohort are included in the list.

Why is the chart interesting?

There is a relationship between the principal subject of a student’s HE course and the A levels they studied, and the strength of the relationship varies by subject. For example, A level Mathematics was taken by 99.5% of students pursuing a degree in Mathematical sciences and 86.9% of students taking a course in Engineering & technology. However, only 38.5% of students in the Business & administrative studies area had a Business Studies A level.1

In general there is a large difference between the HE course destinations of students holding science A levels, and arts and humanities A levels. For example, History and Chemistry A levels have similar uptake among university students as a whole, but the types of courses studied are very different: A level History is well represented among Historical & philosophical studies courses, Languages (including Literature and Classics), Law and Social studies; whereas A level Chemistry is held by large proportions of those studying medical and veterinary degrees, physical, mathematical and biological sciences, and agriculture.

These patterns are likely to be strongly influenced by the types of degrees offered at HE institutions and their entry requirements, as well as the individual interests of the students themselves.

Further information

Full details of the data and analysis can be found in:

Vidal Rodeiro, C.L. (2019). Popularity of A Level subjects among university students. Cambridge Assessment Research Report. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Assessment.


  1. A low percentage of students enrolled on Languages courses had French, German and Spanish A levels; however, this is because the JACS Languages subject area is much broader than Modern Languages, and includes English Literature, Linguistics and Classics for example.↩︎

Research Matters

Research Matters 28: Autumn 2019

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.