Leader: Wake the universities from their torpor

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The Independent Culture
SO NOW 225,000 students know which college or university they are going to this autumn, a further 92,000 should know not long after this weekend and - with luck and good organisation - the remaining 95,000 with lower A-level grades will find a place within the next few weeks.

Given these numbers, it is a wonder that the matching of applicant to college course happens at all, even without the somewhat desultory industrial action this year by the Association of University Teachers.

Given these numbers, however, one might also wonder whether Britain's peculiar system of pre-exam application is necessary at all. A generation ago, when the proportion of the student population going on to college was around 10 per cent, the excruciating (for the applicants) process of applying for a university place, undergoing an interview and then being given an offer contingent on A-level results might have been defensible, or workable. Today, when the proportion is heading for a third, it has become an anachronism.

Other people don't do it this way. In America, colleges offer places based on continuous grade assessment in high school. On the Continent, they rely on a final (but much broader) exam, such as the baccalaureat in France. The exam, however, is taken earlier in the summer and applications for places are made after the results. Not for them a system which has half the applicants failing to match results with offers, and nearly a quarter having to be thrown into a clearing system.

Why do we do it? History, of course, and the difficulties Britain has in squaring a system which allows all who pass their A-levels to get a place against the reality of universities which are more or less oversubscribed. Whatever system you use, there is always bound to be a process of pre- selection for the top universities. Even in France, the grandes ecoles insist on a pre-selection dossier from the school.

But the real reason for Britain's commitment to archaic ways lies in the devotion of academics to their long summers. One can sympathise with the lecturers in their industrial action. They are underpaid even in comparison with teachers. One can sympathise with university professors who are aghast at the way annual exams have been made the be-all and end-all of education criteria. But, to anyone looking at it from the outside, the British way of doing things isn't good. Bring A-levels forward a month, make the application process come after, not before, the results are published, and shake the universities out of their long summer torpor.