To achieve an A* at A-level the candidate has to score over 90% on the A2 [Upper Sixth - Y13] component of the course - almost universally recognised to be the more demanding part of A-level. Thus, the introduction of the A* should make a positive contribution to identifying our Nation's academic elite and thus provide a mechanism by which our most prestigious universities can award places on the basis of merit.
To date, universities have been very cautious about using the A* as part of their offers. This is understandable given that many admissions tutors are primarily concerned with filling their quotas and thus are nervous about the impact of any change to the A-level system lest it flood them with successful candidates, or scare good applicants away. For the 2010 entry only Cambridge, Bristol, Imperial and UCL of the Russell Group universities gave offers that included the A*. The standard offer at Cambridge was A*AA, with the occasional maverick Cambridge admission tutor asking for A*A*A of borderline candidates.
However, going forward, one would expect universities to embrace the A* as a differentiating qualification for their most prestigious, oversubscribed courses. Imperial are reported to be intending to make some A*A*A offers next year, but wider picture is that many top universities are that many are reluctant to use the A*.
Sir Martin Harris, director of the government's Office for Fair Access, said the new grade could strengthen private schools' hold on elite universities.
"Grade inflation in university entry requirements and the fact that A-level A* grades are disproportionately achieved in the independent and selective schools does increase the risk that the brightest disadvantaged young people may be squeezed out of the applicant pool for the most selective universities. Universities need to be aware of this when considering fair access."This begs the whole question as to what is, and what is not, "fair access" to university. Whilst it might be "fair" to favour a university applicant from a Maintained sector school over an equally qualified one from an Independent School, I am not sure that it will ever be "fair" to take a less qualified one. At some point we have to recognise that the best are the best regardless of the sector in which they were educated.
[Quoted in Fears for state pupils as top universities insist on A* at A-level Guardian 02/08/2010]
If universities are going to persist in social engineering, they need to be open about so doing and their criteria for discriminating between candidates from different educational backgrounds need to be transparent and published. In time, there should be a degree of suspicion over any university that rejects the use of the A* as a discriminator between candidates.
Given that most institutions do not interview candidates and most say that they pay little regard to either the personal statement or the reference, then predicted or actual grades are the most important, if not sole, criterion for selection or rejection. If universities reject good candidates from Independent schools in favour of weaker candidates from the Maintained sector, I can foresee the situation where unsuccessful applicants with top A-level grades make legal challenges against those institutions which reject them. Indeed, I am not sure that we will ever get "fair access" to university until we have "blind" UCAS applications where the educational and social background of the applicant are not known to the institution considering the form.
The introduction of the A* at A-level is an opportunity to move towards an admission system that is based on merit - let us hope that the universities embrace it fully.