Radical shake-up for university entry

New admissions policy aims to help students from poor backgrounds
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The Independent Online

Radical steps to reform university applications are to be unveiled today in a move that could herald the biggest shake-up of the system for 50 years. The current "lucky dip", which sees students offered provisional university places based on predicted A-level grades, will be abandoned in three years because of fears it has disadvantaged the poorest students and denied them access to the most prestigious universities.

The shake-up is the result of a year-long project by a government working group into how to make admissions fairer by moving to a system of allocating places after students get their grades.

Today's report is part of the Government's drive to widen access to university to students from disadvantaged backgrounds and to make the system more transparent. It will also pave the way for more radical proposals which could see all university places allocated after students have received their A-level results from 2010.

The reform follows research showing that more than half of all predicted grades are wrong: 36 per cent of predictions are too generous but 15 per cent are too low, suggesting that students could be denied university places because of unfair predictions.

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "It is our intention to move to a post-qualification application system. But realistically that won't happen before 2010. These interim measures will be a big step forward in terms of social justice - the richest students get their grades over-inflated and the poorest have them underestimated."

Headteachers have argued that it is unfair to students to base high-stakes decisions about university places on a flawed system. Education experts welcomed the reforms as a "positive step" towards ending the "lottery" under which thousands of applicants are awarded provisional places before they know their A-level results, and those who fail to achieve their grades are condemned to a last-minute scramble.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "It is much more sensible for students to apply for university after their results so that the system no longer relies on predicted grades made nine months in advance." Steve Smith, the vice-chancellor of Exeter University and a member of the working group that produced the report, said: "We think these proposals will be fairer to students, fairer to universities and ultimately better for society as it will hopefully level the playing field so that everyone has a chance to succeed regardless of their background."

Research from the Sutton Trust, an educational charity founded by the millionaire philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl, has suggested there are about 3,000 bright youngsters from poor backgrounds every year who do not take up places at the UK's top universities despite having good enough grades to do so.

Under the reforms published today by the working party, chaired by Sir Alan Wilson, students applying to start courses in 2009 will be offered provisional places based on the actual grades they have already achieved in exams they have already taken, such as A-level modules. But confirmation of their places will still depend on their final grades.

The A-level results in 2009 will be published 10 days earlier than normal, in the first week of August, to allow students who achieve better grades than expected to switch to a more prestigious university under a reformed clearing system. The report will also call for a reduction in choice of universities from six to four and require them to explain why candidates were rejected. There will also be a consultation on more radical plans to allow students to apply to university after they get their grades. The first option could see universities allocate no places until after students have received their results, although candidates would make expressions of interest and visit institutions. The second option would see universities hold back up to 15 per cent of places for candidates who do better than expected.

The changes are popular with students and schools, but universities are divided. The former polytechnics are worried.Michael Driscoll, the vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and chairman of CMU (Campaigning for Mainstream Universities), said change would bring "enormous difficulties" in some subjects and for some institutions. "We would be dead against reducing the choice for students ... from six to four. We don't see why, for the convenience of a small number of institutions, the choice should be reduced. We would like to see student choice increase."

Roger Brown, the vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent University, said: "Everyone says they're in favour of PQA but nobody wants it. It would be a better system than what we have now but there has never been enough political agreement on how you would do it."

Katherine Davey, 17: 'The new system sounds like a good idea. It is much fairer'

When Katherine Davey received her predicted grades she felt a pang of disappointment. The teenager from Warmington, near Peterborough, is in the process of applying to universities and is hopeful of landing a place at York, Durham, Warwick, Bath or Sussex.

Last year, she scored an A for her completed module in French, a C in maths and a B in English in her AS levels. Her teachers predict that she will get an A and two Bs, one of the Bs for her projected French result.

She said: "I feel that I can achieve an A in French, and it is the subject I want to study later on. I've got A grades in the subject so far, and an A* at GSCE, so I feel it is unfair to be predicted lower, and it won't look as good on my application. I feel it might hold me back."

Katherine said she was behind the new system, which will cut out any possible teacher favouritism. She added: "The new system sounds like a really good idea and if it applied this year, I think I would benefit from it. It is so much fairer for them to look at what you have already done.

"I do know of people who have actually decided to take a year out and reapply because they achieved so much more than they were predicted. Teachers are in quite a lot of power when they predict your grades and what they say could be based more on how much they like you as much as your ability."

The idea that some students manage to persuade teachers to change their grade is also a concern. "Some pupils and their parents actually lobbied the teachers at parents evening to get their predicted grades lifted, and were successful. It doesn't seem fair for others who argue their case and are refused.

"It seems a lot fairer to look at your track record than to use guesswork."

Elaine Barker