Do post-16 qualifications prepare students to study chemistry at university? Vikki Cantrill investigates …

Chemistry is a popular choice at A-level and there has been a 9% increase in the number of students opting to study it over the last two years. This increase is particularly pleasing against the headline decrease in the overall number of entrants to A-levels. However, there has been a recent decline in the number of students studying physical science courses, which includes chemistry, at university.

A graphic image showing a DNA spiral around a pile of books to symbolise a foundation in science (chemistry) learning

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How building a solid chemistry foundation at school can ready students for university courses

Chemistry is perceived to be difficult and the career paths that follow on from a degree in this subject are often unclear to prospective students. So the popularity of chemistry at A-level may, in part, be because it is a gateway subject to other courses like medicine, veterinary science and biomedical science. University chemistry departments monitor trends closely because their financial security and sustainability is directly linked to the number of students enrolled in its courses, so it’s in their best interests to increase the number of students accepted.

Equally, universities want to address their social responsibility and widen access for students. One way that universities can encourage admissions and fulfil aspects of their widening participation remit is to offer a chemistry degree with a foundation year.

New beginnings

One of the most recent courses to be developed is the chemistry with foundation year programme at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB). This brand-new course will welcome its first students in autumn 2020. Here, the university works in close collaboration with Belfast Metropolitan College to deliver an integrated two-year foundation programme. Panagiotis Manesiotis, director of education at the school of chemistry says, ‘The course involves a 10-week work placement and the curriculum is closely matched, so afterwards students are fully prepared to continue their degree studies at QUB.’ From the start, students are enrolled at QUB, which Panagiotis believes is important because it makes them feel they are part of the university and helps with their transition into the university environment.

Take time to identify and give students the skills that they need but haven’t got

Swansea University runs a chemistry with foundation year programme that started in 2019. This course is managed within the university and integrates with the other chemistry courses it offers. Currently, eight students are enrolled, but the course is expected to grow to 20 students next year. Simon Bott from the department of chemistry explains, ‘There is a huge need for widening participation and this course is a really good way for students to get access.’

What students need

A sticking point is that students don’t recognise when they need a foundation programme. Students apply to BSc or MChem programmes and only consider foundation routes if they fail to get the grades for entry into their preferred university. But, in Simon’s experience, students that enrol on foundation programmes progress quickly, in both their academic work and practical skills, and become much more confident. Simon says that the key to success at a smaller university is, ‘to really nurture the students. Take time to identify and give students the skills that they need but haven’t got.’ To support this ethos at Swansea, some of the academic staff are employed in roles with a larger teaching focus.

A similar programme is offered at Cardiff, where 25 to 30 students enrol each year. This programme is well established – it’s been available for more than 10 years – and, like other courses, empowers students who are committed to studying chemistry at degree level but may have a non-standard educational background or may have failed to achieve their potential at A-level. Importantly, the majority of students successfully complete the first year and progress onto the BSc scheme.

General courses

Another approach is to offer a foundation in science and engineering or general sciences. Such a course has been running at the University of Manchester for over 20 years and takes between 240 and 270 students each year. The course offers a broad core of chemistry, physics and maths with academic skills and bespoke units in a student’s intended specialism. The vast majority of students who pass the foundation year then progress onto other courses within the university.

In the third year we see that other skills, such as timekeeping, organisation skills and independence, are holding them up, not their chemistry knowledge

Irrespective of how a foundation scheme is delivered, the university benefits from an additional stream of applicants for study at degree level. After completing a course, foundation year students are well prepared (which makes onward transitions easier) and are typically very motivated to succeed after having had additional opportunities to develop and grow. Over 50% of the top 20 universities for chemistry offer a foundation package, and Oxford University is due to start its bespoke programme in 2020.

Managing changes

Managing the transition of students into higher education who typically enter with level 3 qualifications has always been a challenge. It’s a time when students move away from taught classes towards more independent learning. Panagiotis is concerned that there is a rift developing between the level of knowledge and skills that students receive at school, and that which is expected of them when they start university. Kristy Turner teaches at Bolton School and is also a school teacher fellow at the University of Manchester, so she works directly with students on both sides of the transition. Kristy says that accountability pressures mean that schools need to prioritise exams above developing more independent learning. The chemicals and equipment needed to develop practical skills are also costly, which means some schools can only afford to deliver the minimum number of practical sessions required during a course.

The biggest issue is likely to be students entering chemistry degrees with lower grades

Thorfinnur Gunnlaugsson, from Trinity College Dublin, says that the situation is the same in Ireland with students studying the Irish Leaving Certificate. Thorfinnur says any differences between first year undergraduate students depends mostly on the school, but that everything evens out by the second year. ‘It’s only in [the] third year that we … see that other skills, such as timekeeping, organisation skills and independence, are holding them up, not their chemistry knowledge,’ he points out.

Overall, Kristy believes that A-levels prepare students well for university. ‘The biggest issue is likely to be students entering chemistry degrees with lower grades, despite the standard offers advertised,’ she says. Students that enter university with lower grades won’t have mastered all areas of the A-level syllabus and so there will be knowledge gaps – foundation programmes can be helpful here.

Find the right fit for students

Students who want to study for a chemistry degree with a foundation year at university face a choice. Universities that accept large numbers of students are typically well set up to offer students a very similar experience to their first year undergraduate students, which requires students to undertake a relatively large amount of independent study. Smaller universities tend to be geared towards nurturing fewer students to become independent learners. So students can make a choice that works best for them, depending on their confidence and preferred environment. ‘What we want is success and happiness for our students,’ says Panagiotis.