The most radical overhaul of university admissions for half a century would allow students to apply after they receive their A-level results, sparing them the anguish of the clearing system.
The proposals, published today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), aim to end the system which sees university hopefuls admitted on predicted grades.
Under the new system, A-level exams would be brought forward by 15 days, results published in early July before schools break up for the summer holidays, and the university term would start no earlier than 8 October. At present, university hopefuls are given provisional places based on their predicted grades. But today's report reveals that fewer than one in 10 students receive correct predictions for all three subjects. Only 51.7 per cent of all predictions are accurate, with 41.7 per cent being over-predictions. One in 11 receives an over-prediction by two or more grades and 28 per cent receive at least one under-prediction.
The proposed new system, which will go out for consultation until January, would be the first major shake-up to university admissions since Ucas was founded in 1961.
If agreed, and ministers are sympathetic to the idea of allowing applications to be made after results have been received, it would see the scrapping of the clearing system, through which about 40,000 a year find places.
The report describes clearing as "frenzied" and "hit and miss" – relying, for example, on whether a student gets through on the telephone to his or her preferred university. "The combined effect of predicted grades, insurance choices and clearing have led to a system that is complex, lacks transparency for many applicants and is inefficient and cumbersome for higher education institutions," it says.
It suggests phasing in the new arrangements from 2014 and says the change "would remove unpredictability from the process which applicants find confusing and stressful".
It adds: "Widening participation may be accelerated if we have a fairer, more transparent and simpler system with applicants clear at the point of application whether they meet the minimum requirements for a course."
The report received a cautious welcome. Professor Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said: "We are supportive of a review. There may well be a case for making the applications system more efficient and user-friendly for applicants."
Usman Ali, vice-president of the National Union of Students in charge of higher education, said: "These are clearly very carefully constructed proposals, and we would certainly expect they are given careful consideration and not dismissed out of hand – particularly not by those universities with the most work to do to ensure access is widened for students from disadvantaged backgrounds." For lecturers, Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "The old one-size-fits-all system does not work any more and we clearly need a new system which allows the brightest brains ... the opportunity to fulfil their potential at university."
However, Dr Wendy Piatt, from the Russell Group, which represents 20 of the country's most competitive institutions, warned: "We are concerned that the Ucas proposals might restrict the ability of institutions to make a fair and thorough assessment of applicants.
The Universities minister, David Willetts, welcomed the report, saying: "Making the university application process simpler and more efficient would be good news for students."
Admissions: how the system will change
Candidates apply to university by 15 January. They are made provisional offers based on predicted grades. Exams start late May and results are published in mid August. Those without a place apply through the clearing system for vacancies. The academic year starts late September or early October.
Exams to be brought forward by 15 days, starting early in May. Results to be published by early July before term ends. Marking process to be speeded up, allowing students to make applications with results. No university should start their academic year until 8 October.
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