Education: Beginners' luck

Getting into university can be a game whose rules are kept hidden from the players. Lucy Hodges looks at moves to find a better way
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Applying to university is often likened to playing a game of poker. Students are required to be tacticians, and to read the minds of admissions tutors. Will Nottingham University object, for example, if it is listed second to Oxford on an application form? Will Bristol mind if it is put in second place to Durham?

How students play the game can affect whether they get the course and university of their dreams. Some courses fill all their places within weeks, so a late application will simply be rejected. Some admissions tutors are thought to discriminate against those who apply to Oxford and Cambridge. "Students are playing a game in which they don't know the rules," says John Dunford, past-president of the Secondary Heads Association, and head of Durham Johnston comprehensive school. "That is not good for them or their teachers."

Such is the concern - and lack of agreement about what to do - that the issue has landed in the lap of Sir Ron Dearing, the mandarin who is conducting a review into the future of higher education. Yesterday the seven headteachers/colleges' associations met Sir Ron to tell him what they thought.

One of their most serious indictments is that students have to make their choices more than a year before they start their courses. That means making key decisions, which could affect their whole career paths, at the end of their first year in the sixth form, when young people are changing fast. "We all know youngsters change for the better, and the other way round," says Janet Lawley, headmistress of Bury girls' grammar school. "We need a better way of matching them to courses."

Moreover, the applicants are having to devise their second-guessing strategies knowing that their chances are largely dependent on predicted - rather than real - A-level scores. Surveys have shown that more than half of teachers' predictions of A-level scores are too high, and a quarter are too low. "Is it right to expect the subjective assessment of an admissions tutor to be so influenced by the subjective assessment of a referee?" asks Mr Higgins. "Is it right that an applicant should gear his or her application to the expected requirements of a higher education institution, when the referee/teacher/adviser may get it so wrong?"

Perhaps it is not surprising that 22 per cent of students in their second year of higher education feel uncertain whether they have made the right choice of course, and that 28 per cent of final-year students questioned in a survey said that they would not have chosen the same course, given their time again.

As the higher education system in Britain has mushroomed, the pressure on the admissions system has intensified. The system now is huge: 419,442 applicants chasing 290,596 places at 197 institutions (1995 figures).

Independent schools have a special grievance. According to Vivian Anthony, secretary of the Headmasters and Headmistresses Conference (HMC), hundreds of applicants predicted to get high A-level grades are rejected without explanation. The reason seems to be that there are far more students of that standard than there are places in the most popular university departments. But much of this demand is artificial, points out Mr Anthony, because students make up to six choices and hold two offers before taking up a place.

The process for highly sought-after courses - medicine, law, English, veterinary science - is, indeed, a lottery. One student may be lucky and end up with a decent conditional offer from her first choice of university, and be able to meet the grades required at A-level. Another student, who ends up with better grades, may find she has nowhere to go.

Like the applicants, university departments also are engaging in terrifying guess work. With their conditional offers they are hoping to fill the available number of places with the highest-quality students. If they overshoot,they will be penalised by the Government; if they undershoot, they won't attract enough money for their courses.

As a Radio 4 programme, The University, shows next month (20 February), Warwick's highly-rated mathematics department overshot its target by 60 last year because so many applicants achieved the A-level grades required. This coming year they have decided to demand three As at A-level to ensure they don't make the same mistake again.

More than two years ago, official bodies, including the Committee of Vice-Chancellors, began to examine the vagaries of the admissions system in response to agitation for radical reform. What the schools critics wanted was post-qualification applications. That would involve students applying to university after their A-level and GNVQ results were known.

This radical solution would at least enable students to be absolutely realistic about the courses they were applying for. They would apply for only one course - so the number of applications could be cut to one-sixth the current level. But the universities were not so sure. It would be difficult to squeeze the admissions process into the few weeks after A- level results are known - the third week of August - and the start of the new academic year, they thought. What would happen to those courses that needed to interview applicants?

So the vice-chancellors came up with a compromise: a two-stage admissions system under which some places would be available, as now, on predicted A-level grades, and the rest dependent on students' results. They consulted widely - and found little support. So the compromise has been mothballed. And the whole subject has been tossed at Sir Ron Dearing.

Brian Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Wales College of Cardiff, who chaired the CVCP inquiry, says: "The present system may not be perfect but it is extremely robust and stable. Why change it? It's better to have something you know works reasonably well, than make drastic change and get yourself into trouble." Martin Harris, vice-chancellor of Manchester University and chairman-elect of the CVCP, adds: "It's difficult to devise a system to reconcile the understandable wish of schools that students be judged on the basis of qualifications obtained ... with the need to carry out a proper admissions procedure."

All eyes are now on Sir Ron. Everyone in the system hopes he will provide some leadership. Schools' representatives say it is logically possible to introduce post-qualification applicants so long as all the stakeholders co-operate: the schools must agree to hold A-level examinations earlier, the exam boards must agree to speed up their marking and the universities must have more staff working on admissions in the summer, and/or delay the start of the academic year. "We could speed up the exam process," says Dr Philip Cheshire, head of Warwick School and the man who has been investigating reform for HMC. "We will all have to give a bit."

Not all universities are opposed to post-qualification applications. Lesley Wagner, vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan, says most people acknowledge problems with the current system, but Leeds Met recruits around half its students through the clearing system in the space of one to two weeks, so it is in effect using post-qualification applications.

But the current pressure for reform may be overtaken by events. If the Dearing committee comes out in favour of more localised learning, with students undertaking two years' sub-level degree work at a further education college, and topping that up if they wish with another two years at a university, a completely revamped admissions system might be needed.

"If they come out with that model, are we talking about programmes between partner institutions rather than specific applications to higher education institutions?" asks Mr Higgins.

"If we are also talking about life-long learning and people moving into and out of further and higher education, you may need a whole different method of accessing it"

Vicky Hornby, now aged 20 and a politics student at Collingwood College, Durham University, found her teachers, at Hutton grammar school near Preston, predicting that she would be awarded Bs in English and history and a C in French. That ruled out applying for a law course at a decent university, where an A and two Bs are normally required, and from which she could have obtained articles with a firm of solicitors. She was bitterly disappointed, because she had cherished the idea of studying law since the age of 11.

Vicky was accepted for a politics degree at Durham. Some months later, when she sat her A-levels and received the results, she found that she could have got in to study law after all. Her grades of two As - in history and French - and a B in English (as well as a B in general studies) were easily good enough to gain admittance to a respectable law department. But by then it was too late.

"It is annoying that the opportunity was taken away to study for the degree I really wanted to do, and for which I turned out to be qualified," she says