Failure at secondary school - success in higher education?
Pupils that failCurrent regulations stipulate that the basic requirements for admission to higher education are fulfilled by pupils who have a pass grade in at least 90 per cent of all the courses included in their upper secondary school programmes. This means that they can start programmes in higher education without having passed the Swedish B-course, the English A-course or the A-course in mathematics. These regulations have given rise to intense discussion which has questioned the possibility of coping with a higher education programme without basic knowledge in central subjects. The National Agency for Higher Education has also considered it extremely important to study the consequences of the current regulations. The main issues that needed clarification are:
- How many students begin higher education programmes without passes in Swedish and in English?
- To what extent are they successful in their studies?
The GRAM project at Göteborgs University was contacted and it agreed to undertake a study of these questions. However, the survey was extended to include the significance of a pass in mathematics courses as well.
The survey population comprised all those born in Sweden between 1978 and 1984, a total of about 700,000 individuals. Of these 525 000 or 75 per cent had matriculated from the upper-secondary school, the majority between 1997 and 2003. Up to and including the academic year of 2003/2004 almost 180,000 had begun studies in higher education.
Of all those who had completed their upper-secondary schooling, about 30,000 had not passed the Swedish B-course and about the same number had failed Mathematics A, while 15,000 had not passed in English. However, an extremely limited number had begun higher education programmes - about 1,000 of those who had failed in Swedish and 500 of those who had not passed in either of the other subjects. As so few had begun studies in higher education they formed a very small proportion of the total student population of students. Those who had not passed in Swedish constitute only half of one per cent of the total population and those without passes in English or mathematics an even smaller proportion.
When one views these figures one may well wonder if those without passes pose any kind of problem. They form such a small proportion that they cannot cause the higher education institutions any major problems. In addition, the proportion of those without passes applying to higher education programmes is declining - considerably more could be found among those born in the beginning of the period than those born later. Both circumstances could indicate that hardly any special measures are required to deal with the problem.
Is this argument correct? No, not in our opinion. It may well be that the students concerned do not constitute any major issue in quantitative terms, but if the problem is regarded from the point of view of the individuals, the conclusion is a different one. Those who have not been able to pass one of the most central subjects in the upper-secondary school do considerably less well than other students in higher education. Admittedly this is due on the whole to their poor grade average from upper-secondary school, but even when this is taken into account their attainments in their studies are weaker than could have been expected.
In this study we have only looked at the attainment of credits during the first year of study. Here those without passes have attained about ten credits less than students on the whole and two to three credits less than those with correspondingly poor school-leaving grades (in comparative terms) but with passes in the subject. This last difference may not appear to be a large one but it is statistically significant and applies to those who do not have passes in Swedish as well as those who have failed in English or mathematics.
There is a great likelihood that those who begin higher education without a pass grade in one of the core subjects in the upper-secondary school will acquire fewer credits during the first year of their studies - in other words they fall behind right from the start. There is then an evident risk that they will not be able to maintain the normal pace of study but will slip further and further behind, which means that their studies take an unreasonably long time or that they eventually drop out of the programme they have started. Both outcomes result in economic losses, for instance in the form of high student loans. To this can certainly be added in many cases frustration and other negative experiences resulting from the lack of success in their studies. In our opinion there are therefore cogent reasons for saying that pass grades in Swedish, English and mathematics should be acquired before entering higher education. We also consider that there is little consistency in requiring pass grades in Swedish, English and mathematics from the compulsory schools for admission to one of the national programmes in the upper-secondary school when passes in these subjects are not required to continue to higher education. Moreover a pass grade in the Swedish B-course and English A-course is required for all other categories of enrolments, such as adult students (25:4 admissions) and foreign applicants.
What stance should we then adopt to the fact that the numbers beginning higher education without pass grades are declining? In principle, this changes nothing in our assessment - the results reported in the study indicate that all those seeking higher education should possess sound knowledge in central subjects. It can be added that the development that has been described is probably linked to the fact that a larger and larger proportion are gaining pass grades in Swedish, English and mathematics from their upper-secondary programmes. At the same time, however, an increasing number of pupils are failing to complete their upper-secondary schooling and among those that drop out there are certainly many who would not attain a pass grade. In other words there is a great deal to suggest that powerful remedial measures should be adopted in the upper-secondary school - however, this discussion does not fall within the ambit of this study.
Pupils without grades Another category of students have been noticed in this survey. Analysis of the material showed that certain pupils have no grades at all - neither pass nor fail grades - in the Swedish B-course, English A-course or mathematics A-course. Admittedly they are fewer in number than those with fail grades, but they form a relatively large proportion of those who apply for higher education without pass grades in the two language subjects. What characterises them is that their grade averages from upper-secondary school are considerably higher than those with fail grades who continue to higher education. They also come to a greater extent from social group 1. Those who begin studies in higher education without submitting any grade in Swedish or English have comparative grade averages that are above the mean for all higher education students. On the other hand the level of their attainment in higher education is not particularly impressive. Compared with other pupils with the same school-leaving grades they attain significantly fewer credits. This applies in particular to those without grades in English, but the same tendency is also clearly evident among those without grades in Swedish. Study of the types of higher education programmes chosen by those with fail grades and those who have no grades at all reveals major differences. Admittedly nearly half of each category have chosen programmes that lead to a vocational qualification, but a considerably greater number in the second group have applied for longer and more prestigious programmes. For instance it is primarily master´s programmes in engineering for which those without grades in Swedish and English apply, while diploma programmes in engineering predominate for those with fail grades. In addition it can be noted that the six most popular subject areas for those with no grades at all in these subjects include the law and medicine - two programmes which attract large numbers of applicants. This suggests that in some cases at least grades have been excluded for tactical reasons. Attention was drawn to this possibility in the Inquiry into Admission, which wrote: In many contexts it can be clearly advantageous for the individual pupil not to be awarded a grade of fail or pass but to be absent to such an extent that no grade is awarded at all. (SOU 2004:29, p. 77). This may well be a possibility that is not exploited by very many but in our opinion it should be eliminated entirely.