Because the system requires potential students to commit themselves so early in the sixth form and then locks them into two offers from universities - one first choice and the second an optional insurance offer - it operates with minimum flexibility and finesse. Students who find they have done better than expected in their A-levels are stuck with their offers. They are not allowed to trade up to a better institution or a different course - or at least they are not supposed to. If they are determined to do so, they can try their chances in "clearing", by which time places on popular courses are full, or they have to cancel their application, take a year out and apply to university again the following year.
"It's not fair to individual students," says John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "They don't end up with their best choices. It would be better for them to get their results first and then apply for appropriate courses and universities."
Dr Philip Cheshire, the head of Warwick School and an expert on reform at the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (which represents top independent schools), agrees. He feels that, as young people are growing up fast intellectually and emotionally at the age of 17, it is wrong to force them into such a rigid and drawn-out admissions system. The universities are wedded to it because it does what is needed - gives them plenty of time to match reasonably qualified students to places, thus avoiding over- or undershooting their target numbers and being penalised financially.
"The people who suffer are the boys and girls," he says. "We are living in the dark ages."
For these and other reasons, education experts have been pressing for change. The most influential is Tony Higgins, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), which first called for reform in 1993. A group organised by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals looked at the issue but found that the universities were worried about how they would manage to squeeze the admissions process into the few weeks between the publication of A-level results - the third week in August - and the start of the academic year. They also wondered what would happen to those courses which needed to interview applicants.
The vice chancellors suggested a compromise: a two-stage process whereby some places would be available, as now, on predicted A-level grades, and the rest dependent on actual results. This solution was, however, pronounced unworkable and dropped. The hot potato was then thrown at Lord Dearing. In his 1997 report he recommended that universities, consulting with other agencies, establish a post-qualification admissions system.
Since then a steering group chaired by Sir Brian Smith, the vice chancellor of Cardiff University, has come up with a radical proposal for reform. In a spirit of compromise, it proposes that A-level results be published on 10 August, earlier than now, after which students would apply for university places electronically. They would begin to receive offers one week later.
The actual business of matching students to places will take two-and- a-half weeks under the new system. However, to address university concerns that their competitors might operate clandestine conditional offer systems, the steering group proposed that students would start the applications process on January 5 each year. According to a draft of the consultation paper, students will be able to list four preferences as well as attend open days and interviews. Once their results come out, they will convert those preferences into three choices, listed in order. They will be informed on 27 August where they have been given a place.
The reason everything can be done so quickly is that students' applications can be processed on computer. Universities would make a list of the students that they want from those applying; and those names would be matched with applicants' preferences. It is envisaged that a small clearing operation might be needed to mop up vacant places and to match them to applicants, and that that would take place in the final days of August.
There is no certainty, however, that reform will be accepted. A paper is being sent out after Easter to the 11 Ucas regional groups around the country to get some initial feedback. Teachers, universities, exam boards and students will be asked what they think. The steering group will then decide what to recommend, if anything, to the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals.
The omens do not look good for the reformers. University representatives on the steering group have, if anything, hardened their position over the months. The fact is that, from their point of view, the present system works fine. Crucially, it fits young people into the available places, thus giving universities plenty of time in which to plan financially; and it enables them to fill their halls of residence to a comfortable timescale.
"We have an extreme proposal which means we don't offer places until after A-level results," says Roddy Livingston, the senior assistant registrar at Strathclyde University and a member of the steering group. "That is far too short a time for many universities to make sensible decisions on applicants and to weigh the relative merits of exam results, a candidate's personal statements and the school's reference. It's ridiculous."
But it is not only the universities that are worried about change. Some schools believe the logistics of processing candidates in such a short time will be a nightmare for them as well. Although Hilary Fender, the headmistress of Headington School, an independent girls school in Oxford, sees the benefits of a post-qualification admissions system, she is concerned about the feasibility of calling staff back into school for three weeks in August while applications are processed. It might be possible if the school year were altered to four terms instead of three, but at present it would interrupt summer holidays.
The reformers are aware they face formidable obstacles. Some are very disappointed. "It is a great shame," says John Tredwell, the principal of Worcester Sixth-Form College and a member of the steering group. "The university representatives have become more and more set against the idea of change. I'm afraid it has become a numbers-and-money problem for them. They're petrified that late applications will so unbalance things that they might not be able to balance their books."
Mr Higgins believes the whole issue is being overtaken by events anyway. That is because in the year 2000 new A-levels, AS-levels and GNVQ examinations are being introduced. The idea is that academic sixth-formers will take five AS-levels (worth half an A-level ) in the first year sixth and drop two of those in the second year sixth to emerge with three.
"I think we shall find that the vast majority of schools will put their A-level students in for AS-levels at the end of the lower sixth," he explains. "The students will receive grades for those AS-levels. So, when they start to apply for university they will have grades to show admissions officers. They will have qualifications in the subjects that they have chosen as their conduit into higher eduction, and it will make the forecasting of A-level grades much easier. That way we will be getting a hybrid post- qualification admissions process."
IT TOOK ONLY 11 DAYS TO GET MY FIRST OFFER OF A PLACE
ALL THE sixth-formers at Headington, an independent girls school in Oxford, apply to university electronically via the flick of a computer button.
They have done so for two years - since the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) first began to pilot electronic applications. It's the way all candidates would apply under a post-qualification applications system - and it is probably the way they will all apply in a few years anyway. According to Mike Farmer, the head of Headington's sixth form, its real benefit is that it speeds the process.
"It is very easy to do," says Ria Cooke, 17, who received offers from all six universities to which she applied and is hoping to go to Cambridge to read natural sciences. "I spent a maximum of a couple of hours filling the form in, ran it through a spell check and a grammar check and sent it off to Ucas on 2 October last year. I had my first offer - from Southampton - on 13 October."
Ria believes a post-qualification system would be fairer, although any new system would bring chaos the first year it was introduced.
For Headington student Charlotte Stokes, 17, the beauty of electronic applications is that you can't make a mistake. The computer won't let you. It notices if you get your date of birth wrong, for example, and it won't let you send your form off if you haven't filled in all the boxes. Charlotte zapped her application to Ucas at the beginning of last November and received her first offer at the end of that month. She is hoping to study Spanish at Bristol University.
Her concern about a post-qualification system is that it would mean less certainty for students. As it is, she has an offer of a place conditional on a B and two Cs. "I have the security of knowing I have a place and can make plans accordingly," she says.
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