Cambridge University is considering reintroducing universal and generalised entrance exams for all candidates in the wake of government proposals to abolish AS-levels.

The exams look set to make a comeback after 27 years in order to provide evidence of prospective students' academic abilities. As Cambridge relies on AS-level grades when deciding whether to offer pupils a place, professors at the university have expressed their concern at the abolition.

cambridge university exams

Cambridge University's Emmanuel College, where students may have to take a universal entrance exam in order to be admitted

"We are already discussing ways forward," director of Cambridge admissions Mike Sewell told the Daily Telegraph. "What we are concerned about is that any of the alternatives run the risk of putting good students off, doing the opposite to what AS levels do, which is encourage people who secure good grades half way through their A-levels to apply."

He added the exam would be "very different" from the one abolished in 1986 and would have to be "carefully thought through".

"In the light of the [Michael Gove’s] announcement, the University has of course begun the process of considering all options available to us, so that we may continue meeting our goal of admitting the best and brightest students from all backgrounds," Sewell said. "However, we are clear that the best way of achieving this is for the government to retain public examinations at the end of Year 12."

Last week Michael Gove revealed A-level reforms to bring back traditional two-year long A-levels, which were heavily criticised for narrowing pupils' choices. Gove cited concerns over how students are being prepared for higher education, saying there is "clear dissatisfaction" among leading university academics. The education secretary has said the new A-levels are to be introduced in 2015.

Although both Oxford and Cambridge previously used entrance exams to test all their students, Oxford shows no signs of reintroducing the testing process.

Perhaps one reason is due to Cambridge relying heavily on AS levels as part of its admissions process. In contrast, Oxford has subject-specific aptitude tests in most subjects - around 85% of prospective Oxford candidates are required to take the exams.

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A spokesperson for Oxford University told the Huffington Post UK the institution did not use AS-levels in a "mechanistic way" as part of the selection process but still believed the exams served a useful purpose, "particularly for candidates from backgrounds with little progression into higher education".

"There is often a significant step up in complexity from GCSE to A-levels, and AS-levels give many students the chance to try new subjects and evaluate their progression midway through a course. AS-level results can also be an important chance to build students’ confidence in their academic ability and potential, which is particularly important for students from widening participation backgrounds.

"Extensive changes to A-levels introduced in 2008 are still being developed and it would be important to ensure that further major change did not have an unintended effect on access by disadvantaging schools with fewer resources to make the required adaptation."


Cambridge's intentions have already proved to be controversial, with future students saying the new exams were a "terrible idea".

Katy Day tweeted us saying: "No no no, terrible idea! I was just accepted for an MPhil and the point is that it's specialised!"

While William Hewstone, who will be starting Cambridge in the next academic year, asked:

William Hewstone
no. Why should historians pass same test as chemists? If it lets all disciplines through what does it measure?

Jane Welsh, director of Oxbridge Applications, told HuffPost UK shaking up the application process "could be exciting".

"It might even be necessary given how the world that school students inhabit has changed dramatically in the last
ten years," she said. "University-set admissions tests could present a positive step. However, while it’s a good idea to change the existing system, I think it’s not a good idea to introduce a universal test."

Welsh added: "Setting one ‘universal’ test for all subjects might present something of a challenge, as the beauty
of many of the subject-specific tests such as the Cambridge law test is they really focus on the skills required to excel at that subject at university.

"While rational thought, and reasoning across numbers, words and space can be tested in a universal test – the introduction of this sort of exam could create a more homogeneous student population, when diversity of thought is one of the most exciting things about Cambridge. Surely, students applying for subjects as different as maths and
anthropology might benefit from thinking differently in terms of their approaches to problems?"