University entrance reforms to reduce 'lucky dip' effect

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The Independent Online

A radical shake-up of university admissions to help bright students from poor backgrounds get into elite institutions will be given the green light by ministers next week.

The measures to be announced include making it easier for students to apply for university after they have received their A-level results. The shake-up, the biggest in university admissions for 50 years, aims to reduce the "lucky dip" effect of students being awarded provisional places based on predicted grades.

Teachers claim this discriminates against working-class students from backgrounds that do not have a history of going on to higher education - because they lack the confidence to apply to top institutions until they have seen their results.

Research shows 36 per cent of all predicted grades are too generous, while 15 per cent are too low. The moves to be announced next week could pave the way for the entire system to be changed to one where all places are allocated after results are received.

They may include students providing the results of A-level modules already taken when they apply - or universities setting aside a specific quota of places to be allocated after the final results are known. Sources said the new measures were likely to be in place for students planning to go to university in 2008. They would then be reviewed in three years' time before a final decision as to whether to move towards full post-qualification application.

There was some feeling last night among supporters of the change that the moves had been watered down from the original consultation paper which was put out by ministers last September. One said that the change appeared to be "moving at snail's pace".

Some university vice-chancellors claimed, when ministers announced the proposals in September, that they would make little difference and were reluctant to put back the start of the academic year to make it easier to introduce the change. There were also claims yesterday that it was more difficult than originally envisaged to bring forward the publication of A-level results to ease the transition to the new system.

Some supporters of the shake-up believe a gradual introduction will help keep reluctant vice-chancellors on board for the proposals.

Ministers do not have the power to order universities to change their admissions systems as they are autonomous bodies. But Bill Rammell, the Higher Education minister, is a supporter of moving towards the new system - believing it will widen participation in higher education among disadvantaged groups.

* The number of primary school children staying for lunch at school has dropped from 49 per cent last year to 44 per cent in the wake of Jamie Oliver's Channel 4 series aimed at improving school dinners, a survey by the Soil Association published today says. But it also found that take-up has increased in schools that have improved the quality of meals.