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Hard vs Soft Subjects: A Critical Choice

    David Vaiani is the Founder & Director of Aspire 

    Whenever I visit state schools to talk to the pupils about applying to Oxbridge, the most frequently asked questions tend to focus on which subjects are required in order to gain access to the country’s leading universities. Invariably, as the matter is discussed in greater detail, I am always struck by the extent to which this important matter appears to be shrouded in confusion.

    At the heart of this dilemma lies the distinction between so-called ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects. To some observers, drawing such a distinction is viewed as intrinsically unfair and potentially divisive. After all, they ask, do not all subjects offer some kind of benefit? Perhaps they do, but the issue is really more nuanced than that. Whilst it is probably wrong to suggest that, say, the study of tourism offers little of concrete value, it is certainly true to say that those who wish to study for an academic degree at a top university would be well advised to choose subjects that are viewed as academically demanding.

    It should be added that the universities are not alone in this regard. If you speak to any leading graduate employer, they will all tell you that they are looking for candidates with ‘a strong academic record’, which translates into good marks (As and Bs) at GCSE and AS Level in tough subjects (e.g. Mathematics, Sciences, History and Modern Languages etc), followed by a good degree (typically 2.1 or better) from a leading university (i.e. Russell Group).

    As I write this, I feel that I am, in many ways, spelling out something that is, or ought to be, perfectly self-evident. Sadly, that is far from being the case. Whereas most privately educated pupils know that they need to excel in tough academic subjects in order to get into the best universities, many state school pupils that I encounter are often worryingly uninformed about this crucial distinction. Indeed, the main tendency is for these pupils to assume that they merely need to get straight As at school and that the actual subjects chosen are of secondary importance. Of course, I tell them, Oxbridge and all the other leading universities expect their prospective students to have a string of straight A’s, but what is arguably even more important is for them to take subjects that are not only relevant to their chosen degree course, but are also considered as rigorous and academically challenging.

    The net result of this lack of information is that there exists today a significant divide between the state and private school sector. Broadly, despite countless reports and newspaper articles, there are still far too many state school pupils who opt for ‘soft’ subjects at school in the hope that they will improve their exam results, whereas their privately educated counterparts are rapidly monopolising many of the ‘hard’ and well-regarded subjects, such as Modern Languages. Not surprisingly, the former often struggle to get into the top universities as a result, whereas the latter benefit from having chosen appropriate subjects at school. A perfectly simply and seemingly straightforward choice becomes, all of a sudden, a determining factor in a young person’s life.

    So, what can be done about this problem? Based on my experience of speaking to pupils and teachers at state schools, I would suggest three possible solutions. Firstly, I feel that the Government needs to send out a clear and unambiguous message to encourage the brightest pupils to focus their energies exclusively on the more academic subjects. To his credit, David Willetts has indicated that the Government will take a lead in this area. One can but hope that they will keep their word.

    Secondly, looking at the official entry requirements on university websites, it is plainly obvious that greater transparency is required from the universities in regards to acknowledging the importance of choosing certain subjects over others. In fairness to the universities, some already do this. Cambridge, for instance, advises potential applicants on its website against taking more than one from a list of 25 subjects, ranging from business studies to dance and tourism. However, it is clear that other leading universities need to start emulating this approach.

    Thirdly, schools could also wield greater influence by appointing one member of staff to take responsibility for the school’s brightest academic talents. Although some schools have so-called ‘gifted and talented’ co-ordinators, it really ought to be a priority for every school to have such an individual on the payroll.

    The alternative is to continue peddling the damaging myth that there is no real distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ subjects. The result of this approach will only be to ensure that the goal of widening participation across the leading universities will become steadily more difficult to achieve. As a result, an important barrier to social mobility will continue to remain firmly and stubbornly entrenched.

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