Poorer students’ subject choices may be putting them at a disadvantage, study finds

13 August 2017

Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may be held back by their A-level subject choices when applying for prestigious courses such as law at leading universities, new findings suggest.

As part of her doctoral work at the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS), at the UCL Institute of Education, Catherine Dilnot analysed information on all English students who entered UK universities with three A-levels in 2010, 2011 and 2012 – nearly 475,000 in total – to find out how those doing certain A-levels fared in the competition for a university place.

Those taking A-levels in subjects such as law, accounting or business were less likely to attend elite universities than students with traditional academic subjects such as science, mathematics, languages, history or geography.

Ms Dilnot found students taking academic subjects tended to go to more prestigious universities. In addition, some subject choices seemed to disadvantage certain students – those taking law, for instance, were more likely to be at universities that scored lower on league tables if they had A-level law rather than a subject such as maths or science.

Although the Russell Group of universities publishes a list of useful or ‘facilitating’ subjects, students may not realise that taking subjects that are not on this list could hinder them when it comes to admission to prestigious courses at high-ranking universities, Dilnot says. This is particularly problematic for students enrolling on degree courses which do not require specific A-level subjects.

Vocational A-levels such as law are disproportionately favoured by students from lower-income backgrounds and are taken much more widely at FE and sixth form colleges than at private schools. Research for the Social Mobility Commission found that at leading accountancy firms, 40-50% of applicants and 60-70% of those receiving job offers were educated at one of the 24 high-status Russell Group universities.

“Schools and colleges can give clear advice on A-level subject choices to those hoping to do degrees in subjects with pre-requisites: it is much harder for them to know how to advise those applying for subjects such as business and law which do not have required A-levels,”  Dilnot says.

“A student who aspires to a career in a professional services firm might easily think that taking an A-level in law, accounting or business would be helpful in achieving that goal.  But it may be that choosing these subjects is actually unhelpful in high status university admission.

“So an apparently sensible subject choice for students wishing to prepare for a professional career may, in fact, put them at a disadvantage.”

The research is part of a suite of papers being published by CLS which highlight the ways in which students’ subject choices at 14,16 and 18 can affect their future prospects.


Read the full paper

‘The relationship between A-level subject choice and ranking of university attended: the ‘facilitating’, the ‘less suitable’ and the counter-intuitive,’ by Catherine Dilnot.

It will form part of a special edition of the Oxford Review of Education which will be published in early 2018.

For further information please contact:

Fran Abrams
Tel: 07939 262001

Ryan Bradshaw
Tel: 020 7612 6516


Notes to editors

  1. This paper examines the relationship between the subjects taken at A-level and the status of university attended. This status is measured using the Times Good University Guide rankings. Attending a higher status university has been shown to confer later benefits in the labour market, and although prior attainment has been shown to be the most important predictor of high status university attendance, other factors may matter too.
  2. The research uses a taxonomy of A-levels developed from the published preferences of the Russell Group of 24 high status UK universities, categorising A-levels as ‘facilitating’, ‘useful’ and ‘less suitable’ for university entry. The 41 subjects categorised as ‘less suitable’ in the taxonomy are ones where at least one Russell Group university has expressed reservations about the subject as university preparation and the subject is never required for even related university courses. The 20 ‘useful’ subjects are those which appear on at least one Russell Group university approved list of A-levels and are absent from all non-preferred lists.
  3. Three cohorts of English students taking at least three A-levels in 2010 to 2012 are linked using administrative data to their university destinations. The data are examined to see the relationships between the number of facilitating and ‘less suitable’ A-level subjects held and the university league table score, taking into account university subjects, A-level grades and other school and personal characteristics. The role of maths as being ‘extra facilitating’ is addressed. Three particular ‘less suitable’ A-level subjects, related to professional business careers, are further examined.
  4. Catherine Dilnot carried out the analysis as part of her part-time doctoral work at the UCL Institute of Education. She works as a senior lecturer at Oxford Brookes University.
  5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government.
  6. The UCL Institute of Education (IOE) is a world-leading centre for research and teaching in education and social science, ranked number one for education worldwide in the 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 QS World University Rankings.  It was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2016.  In 2014, the IOE secured ‘outstanding’ grades from Ofsted on every criterion for its initial teacher training, across primary, secondary and further education programmes.  In the most recent Research Excellence Framework assessment of university research, the IOE was top for ‘research power’ (GPA multiplied by the size of the entry) in education. Founded in 1902, the Institute currently has more than 8,000 students and 800 staff.  In December 2014 it became a single-faculty school of UCL, called the UCL Institute of Education. www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe
  7. University College London (UCL) was founded in 1826. It was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to open up university education to those previously excluded from it, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. It is among the world’s top universities, as reflected by performance in a range of international rankings and tables. It currently has over 35,000 students from 150 countries and over 11,000 staff. Its annual income is more than £1 billion. www.ucl.ac.uk | Follow @uclnews | Watch www.YouTube.com/UCLTV

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