There is undoubtedly a sea change going on in the higher education space. Leading UK universities are now competing more fiercely than ever as they try to attract top sixth formers. Several are making very attractive offers, while others are making unconditional ones – something that has rarely been the case since the 1970s and 80s. In particular, several Russell Group universities are starting to show a real understanding and appreciation of the value of students’ International Baccalaureate (IB) Diplomas.
The IB is a challenging programme: it requires pupils to display a range of skills, knowledge and understanding that, once mastered, makes them great thinkers, wonderful university students and – potentially – excellent employees. For example, the IB’s extended essay and ‘theory of knowledge’ aspects mean that IB pupils arrive at university knowing how to flourish academically. They are encouraged to be more philosophical in their approach, and already have direct experience of undertaking extensive and proper research. This means that, when asked to write a 10,000-word dissertation, they won’t go pale and collapse.
The challenge presented by the IB Diploma is that it is geared more to independent thinking and learning, invaluable skills for a successful university career. Over the last 12 months both the University of Leeds and King’s College London have revised their standard offers for IB pupils downwards, from 39 points to 35 for most courses. They have done this as a result of a rigorous analysis of the relative performance of IB pupils while at university, compared to their A-level contemporaries. The result has been a huge increase in the number of first-rate IB pupils applying to and accepting offers from King’s.
Unfortunately, however, the challenge that the IB Diploma presents is not yet universally recognised. Some universities –Cambridge in particular –persist in requiring 7s in Higher Maths for applicants for Economics and Engineering courses, believing this to be the equivalent of an A* in Further Maths at A-level. I am not a mathematician, but the Maths teachers I know who teach both Further and Higher Maths say that this is simply unfair. Those that teach both are adamant that achieving a 7 in the IB is a far greater challenge.
As an ex-Cambridge graduate myself, I find it somewhat peculiar that while Oxford typically asks for 39 points, Cambridge requires 42 from IB Diploma pupils. The university’s own statistics acknowledge that IB pupils are more likely to achieve a 2:1 or better at Cambridge than their A-level counterparts.
For some years, ever since the IB Diploma became better recognised, there has been a widely held view that while it offers an unrivalled educational experience, pupils studying for the Diploma are at a disadvantage when it comes to getting into their chosen UK universities. This picture is, however, changing dramatically. If the issue of Higher Level Maths is recognised more widely by some of the best universities, there will be a real fairness in the system. Universities will thereby encourage some of the brightest and best sixth formers to take on the challenge of the most demanding curriculum available, without the risk of prejudicing their university applications. Given that our best universities are increasingly in direct competition with the best in the US, the sooner UK institutions correct the current IB acceptance criteria, the sooner they will find that top IB pupils will look to the UK rather than overseas for their university education.
Joe Davies is Master of Haileybury.