Students' leaders reacted with dismay last night after it emerged that a widely expected shake-up of university admissions, which would have allowed all students to apply for courses after receiving their A-level results, has been ditched.
In a decision that will also disappoint many headteachers, a review panel set up by Ucas, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, concluded it would be too difficult to implement.
Liam Burns, president of the National Union of students, said the decision was "yet another missed opportunity to grasp the nettle and demonstrate a sustained commitment to post-qualification admission, which is a fairer way for students to apply to university."
At present, students are offered provisional places dependent upon receiving certain grades. Campaigners have long argued that the change to post-qualification admissions would give disadvantaged students who did not have the courage to apply to leading universities prior to their results the courage to do so. Last year, the Universities minister David Willetts increased the likelihood of such a change by calling for the possiblity to be investigated in his higher education White Paper.
Ucas itself said in a consultation document late last year that a full post A-level application system could be introduced in 2016. Changes could have been phased in from September 2014, it suggested. But the report, which is published today, concludes that a post-admission scheme would force universities to concentrate just on A-level grades – thus reducing the chances of students from poorer homes being selected on potential even if they have lower scores.
In addition, the report argues it would be impossible to agree a timetable for admissions as exams in different parts of the country are taken at different times.
The review panel admitted that sticking with the current system will mean "inaccuracy of predicted grades remains a problem", but the report does recommended an overhaul of the clearing system to make it more accessible for applicants who want access to it after they have received their results.
The findings were backed by the Russell Group, which represents leading higher education research institutions. Dr Wendy Piatt, its director general, said a post-qualification system "would do nothing to improve access or fairness [and would] reduce the time for universities to conduct... assessments of candidates."