Entry Characteristics and Academic Performance of Students in a Master of Pharmacy Degree Program in the United Kingdom

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Entry to higher education in the United Kingdom (UK) is predominantly based on prior attainment of General Certificate of Education (GCE) advanced level (A-level) courses. The use of A-level achievement by higher education institutions as the primary criterion for admission to undergraduate degree programs has been subject to criticism. A-level performance in independent schools (ie, private fee-paying schools where approximately 7% of all children in England are educated) is superior to that of state schools. (1,2)

Given that admission to a university is largely a product of grades achieved in A-level courses, differences in performance between pupils of fee-paying institutions and those in the state sector have given rise to suggestions that universities are indirectly discriminating against pupils from lower socioeconomic groups. (3) Indeed, the higher-education participation rate among people aged 18 to 20 years from lower socioeconomic groups is approximately half that of higher socioeconomic groups. (4)

The higher education sector's response to these suggestions was an agenda that became known as "widening participation." (5) One early response was the "Fair Enough?" project of Universities UK, the representative organization for universities in the United Kingdom. (6) This project recommended that school performance data (in conjunction with other information) should be used to identify applicants with relative educational disadvantage to decide whether some applicants should be offered a lower level of acceptance to undergraduate degree programs. The rationale behind such differential offers was the belief that, all other factors being equal, students from poorly performing schools (ie, a priori nonselective state schools) would outperform students from better-performing schools during their higher education.

While school performance, in combination with prior educational attainment, is used by some institutions of higher education, A-level grades remain the primary admission criterion. This is entirely reasonable, considering that A-level grades are the single most important factor in determining expected achievement in higher education. (7) Individuals with higher entrance grades are more likely to graduate from a university program and to graduate within a higher honors category. (In the UK, honors degrees are awarded in 4 classes: first-class honors, second-class honors, lower second-class honors, and third-class honors.)

The independent school sector and certain elements of the UK press have been hostile to the idea of "differential offers" amid claims of "social engineering" and poor students being given a "two grade 'head start.'" (8,9) Despite opposition from certain commentators, the widening participation agenda has enjoyed some success, increasing higher-education participation among young people living in the most disadvantaged areas by around 50% between 1995 and 2010.10 Interestingly, when all other factors (eg, age, gender, ethnicity, and A-level grades) are equal, students from independent secondary schools consistently perform less well in higher education than do students from other secondary schools. (7,11)

Concerns that the use of differential offers may allow substandard students to enter UK institutions of higher education are unlikely to be applicable in the context of pharmacy. Admission to pharmacy degree programs (the 4-year, full-time, MPharm program) is highly competitive, with candidates needing to achieve a minimum of 3 A-level subjects at grade B (designated as BBB) to access courses starting in 2011. (12) The majority of higher education institutions with pharmacy programs demand at least a grade B in an A-level chemistry course as well as a grade B in a biology, mathematics, or physics course. Aston University details typical admission requirements as being grades AAB in 3 specific A-level course subjects, including chemistry and at least 1 other science course (biology, mathematics, or physics). …