January 1998

Survey of entry qualifications and degree outcome for students who graduated in biochemistry from UK universities in 1996

Report compiled by Dr Mike Withnall, Assistant Director, Policy Development


A-level remained the predominant qualification of students entering biochemistry first degree courses between 1993/4 and 1995/6 at old universities (decreased from 92 to 86% over this time frame), and to a lesser extent at new universities (unchanged at about 64% over this time frame). At new universities HNC/HND was the next largest entry qualification in 1993/4 (16%) but afterwards lost ground to access and other qualifications. For 1995/6 graduates (1993/4 entrants) class 2.1 was the modal degree class at old universities (49% of students), and class 2.2 at new universities (43% of students). Sixty four percent of students with A-level as the main entry qualification gained class 1 or 2.1 degrees at old universities, compared to 36% at new. Students with access qualifications appeared to be more successful at old than at new universities, whereas the reverse applied for those entering with HNC/HND. For students with known A-level points score, 16-20 points was the modal entry band at old universities (37% of students) and 6-10 points that at new universities (55% of students). For these students, the percentage within a band gaining a class 1 or 2.1 biochemistry degree increased with increasing A-level entry points band at both old and new universities. Within common points bands students at new universities achieved a higher percentage of good degrees than those at old universities, but the difference between old and new was not pronounced, and could have been influenced by the small sample size of students at new universities


1. Data from Biochemical Society Graduate Employment Surveys suggest that the number of UK 'biochemistry' first degree graduates has approximately doubled over the last 10 years. The expansion in numbers has coincided with vocational alternatives to the traditional A-level qualifications becoming more widely available and encouraged, and universities accepting students with a broader range of qualifications and experiences than previously. The Employment Surveys monitor the numbers of students achieving class 1/class 2 or class3/pass degrees each year, but give no detailed information on the breakdown of degree classification and how this is related to the backgrounds of the students. Since such information would be valuable for the seminars that the Society plans to organise on External Examining, and for the work on Threshold Standards that the Biological Sciences sector will need to undertake for QAAHE, data for particular cohorts of biochemistry graduates were purchased from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) to enable a study to be performed.

2. The present report analyses the range of entry qualifications, and relates these to degree classification, for students who graduated with a first degree in biochemistry from UK universities in 1996, the most recent year for which this information was available. For those students whose main qualification was GCE A-level, the relationship across the sector between A-level score (where known) and degree outcome has been determined. In order to investigate how rapidly entrance requirements have been changing in recent years the range of qualifications of students commencing biochemistry degrees in 1995 and 1996 is compared with that of the earlier cohort of students.


Sources of data

3. The following data sets were obtained from HESA:

  1. numbers, and main entry qualifications, of qualifiers with first degrees in biochemistry in 1996;
  2. numbers, and main entry qualifications, of qualifiers with first degrees in molecular biology and biophysics in 1996;
  3. as 1), but subdivided into numbers whose highest entry qualification was at GCE A-level or SCE Highers;
  4. as 2), but subdivided into numbers whose highest entry qualification was at GCE A-level or SCE Highers;
  5. numbers of first year, first degree students as at December 1995 with main subject of study of biochemistry;
  6. numbers of first year, first degree students as at December 1995 with main subject of study of molecular biology and biophysics.
Students of molecular biology and biophysics were included because it was thought that they would probably be returned as 'biochemists' in the Graduate Employment Survey. This grouping only constituted about 10% of the total students in the present study. Other groupings within the HESA classification 'Biological Sciences' were considered to be too broad to warrant inclusion. When the term 'biochemistry' is used in this report it refers to the summation of the HESA categories 'biochemistry' and 'molecular biology and biophysics'.

4. Entry qualifications were grouped as below:

  1. A-level: this included all combinations of GCE A- and AS-levels, and SCE Highers;
  2. HNC/ HND: this included BTEC /SCOTVEC equivalents;
  3. Access qualification: this included accredited ACCESS courses; foundation courses; other credits from UK HE institutions, and (infrequently) Dip HE or first degree of a UK institution;
  4. Overseas qualification: all such qualifications including international baccalaureate;
  5. Other UK qualification: this included ONC/ OND and BTEC/ SCOTVEC equivalents; GNVQ/GSVQ level 3 (not applicable for 1993 entrants); GCSE/ 'O'-level, SCE 'O' grades and standard grades, or (infrequently) no formal qualification.

Limitations of data

5. Interpretation of the data is limited principally by the fact that the data supplied by HESA were incomplete. For the data on 1995/96 first degree biochemistry graduates only 48 out of 78 universities listed gave a useful breakdown of entry qualifications, the rest recording entry qualification predominantly as 'not known'. The entry qualification was defined for 978 out of 1801 students. For those whose main entry qualification was GCE A-level, the points band was known for only 539 out of 861 students listed. Entry qualifications data were much more complete for the 1995/96 first year students, with 76 out of 79 universities giving a useful breakdown, and 2021 out of 2278 students accounted for.


Main entry qualifications

6. In what follows, percentage figures refer to the number of students whose entry qualifications were known, rather than to the total cohort of biochemistry students (see paragraph 5).

7. Students entering biochemistry courses in 1993/94 had predominantly A-level qualifications (92% at pre-1992 (old) universities; 64% at post-1992 (new)) (Table 1). The balance at old universities comprised similar proportions having HNC/HND equivalents, Access qualifications, or overseas qualifications (all <3%). Of the balance at new universities students with HNC/HND equivalents comprised the largest grouping (16%), with smaller proportions having access qualifications or overseas qualifications (8% and 2%, respectively). A sizeable minority (10%) had other UK qualifications (more ONC/OND equivalents than GCE O-level).

8. For 1995/96 entrants GCE A-level as the main qualification was a little less common at old universities (86%) but unchanged at new. All other categories of entry qualifications increased slightly at old universities compared to 1993/94. At new institutions students with access qualifications (12%) or overseas qualifications (6%) increased at the expense of those with HNC/HND equivalents (6%). GNVQ/ GSVQ was a rare main entry qualification:-three students with level 3 were recorded at new universities and one at an old university; one with level 4 at an old university; and one with level 5 at a new university. Data for 1996/97 biochemistry entrants for universities overall can be gleaned from the UCAS Annual Report 1996. This showed that compared to the previous year there was little change in proportion of entrants with GCE A-level as the main qualification (87% overall), that with HNC/HND equivalents (5%) and that with an access qualification (4%). Thirty students out of 1853 listed (<2%) had GNVQ/GSVQ as the main qualification.

Relationship of degree classification to entry qualification

9. The degree classification for students entering university with qualifications within the various groupings is shown in Table 2a. The 2.1 was the modal degree class overall, and for students at old universities, but the 2.2 for students at new universities. Considering the university sector overall, each grouping of entry qualifications produced a superficially fairly similar spread of degree results across the five degree classes. When considered at the level of old and new universities the most noticeable differences were that students with access qualifications appeared to do better at old than at new universities, whereas students with HNC/HND appeared to do better at new than at old (although note that the groups of students concerned were quite small). Classes 1 and 2.1 are often considered 'good' degrees, and Table 2b shows the breakdown of students within the different groupings of entry qualifications achieving those grades. The differences noted above between old and new universities are readily apparent in this table. In addition, there was a clear difference between the two types of university in the proportion of A-level entrants achieving a good degree (64% old, 36% new). It is worthy of note that students (presumably foreign) with overseas entry qualifications achieved the highest proportion of good degrees (73% overall)-this probably reflecting relatively strict entry requirements coupled with strong commitment by the students.

Comparison of results with those in the 1996 Graduate Employment Survey

10. In view of the fact that only about half the total number of biochemistry graduates could be included in this survey because of the incomplete data supplied by HESA it was considered important to demonstrate that the population was representative of the whole cohort. In table 3 are listed the numbers of biochemistry graduates in the current study (ie with known entry qualifications) who achieved classes 1 and 2 degrees, compared with the total cohort listed by HESA, and with the numbers found in the Society's Employment Survey of 1996 biochemistry graduates. The ratio of numbers in classes 2.1 and 2.2 compared to class 1 did not differ greatly overall for the present study population compared to the whole cohort, although the relative proportion of class 2.1 graduates at new universities was lower. This is a reflection of the small sample size of students at new universities, and it is not considered that it would skew markedly the interpretation of the data. In terms of degree outcome the study population mirrored well the whole cohort listed by HESA.

11. The remarkable similarity between the HESA data on the whole cohort and those of the Graduate Employment Survey is noteworthy, and gives increased authority to the information gained from the latter survey. The only real difference between the two sets of data was that the ratio of class 2.1 to class 2.2 graduates from new universities was greater in the Society's survey than in HESA data. This could easily have arisen from a difference between the two studies in interpretation of what constitutes a 'biochemistry' graduate.

Relationship of degree classification to A-level entry score

12. The degree classes achieved by 1996 biochemistry graduates who entered university with A-level scores in the particular five-point bands used by HESA are shown in Table 4. It should be noted that points scores were only available for 472 out of 769 biochemistry students at old universities listed in Table 1, and for 67 out of 92 students at new universities. For old universities the modal entry-points band was 16-20 points (37% of students), but considerable numbers entered with 21-25, or 26-30 points (22 and 28% of students, respectively). Only 13% entered with less than 16-20 points. For new universities the modal entry points band was 6-10 points (55% of students), with smaller numbers having 1-5 points (22%), 11-15 points (18%), or 16-20 points (5%).

13. In its study Inter-institutional variability of degree results, HEQC (1996) used proportions achieving 'good' degrees (class 1 and class 2.1) at different institutions as a quantitative comparison. In the present survey, for those students with known A-level entry scores, 66% of the total at old universities achieved a good degree, and 39% of the total at new. The percentages of students within different entry-points bands gaining a good degree are shown in Fig 1. For both old and new universities the percentage increased with increasing entry points. Within common points bands, students at new universities gained a higher percentage of good degrees than those at old universities, but the differences between old and new were not pronounced, and could have been influenced by the small numbers of students at new universities within each band. In the case of the 16-20 points band, in particular, where the difference between old and new was most noticeable, the figure of 100% achieving a good degree for new universities was derived from only three students.

Table 1 Main qualifications of students starting biochemistry degrees in 1993/4 (1996 graduates) and 1995/6 (1998 graduates)

Entry year No of
Entrants with main qualifications:
A-level HNC/HND Access
No % No % No % No % No %
1993/4 Old: 27 769 92 18 2 22 3 23 3 2 0
New: 11 92 64 23 16 11 8 3 2 15 10
1995/6 Old: 44 1409 86 46 3 72 4 92 6 14 1
New: 13 253 65 22 6 48 12 21 6 44 11

Table 2a Breakdown of degree classification according to main entry qualification for 1996 biochemistry graduates

University type Main entry qualification Numbers with degree:
Class 1 Class 2.1 Class 2.2 Class 3 Pass
Overall A-level 119 405 270 57 10
HNC/HND 3 19 15 1 3
7 8 13 3 2
3 16 5 2 0
Other 1 4 7 4 1
Sum 133 452 310 67 16
% total 14 46 32 7 1
Old A-level 111 380 229 44 5
HNC/HND 0 7 9 1 1
6 7 6 2 1
3 14 4 2 0
Other 0 2 0 0 0
Sum 120 410 248 49 7
% total 14 49 30 6 1
New A-level 8 25 41 13 5
HNC/HND 3 12 6 0 2
1 1 7 1 1
0 2 1 0 0
Other 1 2 7 4 1
Sum 13 42 62 18 9
% total 9 29 43 13 6

Table 2b Proportions of students with different entry qualifications gaining a class 1 or 2.1 biochemistry degree

Data derived from Table 2a
Main entry
% with class 1 or class 2.1 degrees
University type
Overall Old New
A-level 61 64 36
HNC/HND 54 39 65
45 59 18
73 74 67*
Other 29 100* 20
* Less than 10 students in these groupings

Table 3 Comparison of present data for 1996 graduates having known entry qualifications with those for the full cohort of biochemistry graduates and with those from the 1996 Biochemical Society Graduate Employment Survey

Data source University type Numbers with degree:
Class 1 Ratio:
class/class 1
Class 2.1 Ratio:
class/class 1
Class 2.2 Ratio:
class/class 1
Present data
for students
with known
Overall 133 1.0 452 3.4 310 2.3
Old 120 1.0 410 3.4 248 2.1
New 13 1.0 42 3.2 62 4.8
listed by
Overall 220 1.0 779 3.5 571 2.6
Old 200 1.0 693 3.5 469 2.3
New 20 1.0 86 4.3 102 5.1
Overall 222 1.0 772 3.5 585 2.6
Old 196 1.0 654 3.3 469 2.4
New 26 1.0 118 4.5 116 4.5

Table 4 Relationship of degree classification to entering A-level points score for 1996 biochemistry graduates

Data obtained from 32 old universities and 6 new universities
Numbers with degree: Total
Class 1 Class 2.1 Class 2.2 Class 3 Pass
Overall 1-5 0 1 9 4 3 17
6-10 5 17 22 8 3 55
11-15 4 15 20 9 0 48
16-20 12 91 67 9 0 179
21-25 14 58 30 4 0 106
26-30 49 71 13 1 0 134
Old 1-5 0 0 1 1 0 2
6-10 2 4 7 4 1 18
11-15 1 12 16 7 0 36
16-20 11 89 67 9 0 176
21-25 14 58 30 4 0 106
26-30 49 71 13 1 0 134
New 1-5 0 1 8 3 3 15
6-10 3 13 15 4 2 37
11-15 3 3 4 2 0 12
16-20 1 2 0 0 0 3

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