Higher Education: A-levels? How much do they prove? - Maureen O'Connor talks to a vice-chancellor with radical ideas about the admission qualifications students really need

Brian Roper, the new vice- chancellor of North London University, admits to a mischievous willingness to fly kites. Hence his suggestion that if the schools and examination boards do not get their act together on the timing of A-level results, universities may go it alone and set their own entrance tests.

He believes there are three reasons why universities should be more pro-active in shifting the system so that applications can be dealt with after A-level results come out.

The present system, he says, is unstable and can be unfair to applicants. If many well qualified prospective students are turned down this year because they have failed to meet their offers by a single grade, he thinks this unfairness will be taken more seriously than it has been before.

'It is crazy for the universities to keep on producing conditional offers and then rejecting promising young people for lack of a point or two. If the examining boards cannot sort out the A-level madness, then the universities may have to do it themselves.'

Second, Mr Roper says that the late confirmation of places is inhibiting universities which want to switch from a three-term to a two- semester system. Ideally, they should be able to fit in a 15-week semester before Christmas, which would mean a September start.

Third, he thinks that the A-level system itself is not necessarily providing universities with what they want in the preparation of students for higher education. It does not dovetail in terms of subject content and is now only one qualification that universities have to consider in an increasingly complex world of General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQ) and records of achievement.

'A-level does not necessarily tell us all we want to know about a prospective student. It is a very poor predictor of eventual success. But no one bothers to consult the universities.

'Higher education has been the last constituency to be consulted in new developments like the GNVQ, but if we are to judge this qualification for entrance, we need to have a proper dialogue with schools and examination boards.'

Mr Roper was previously deputy vice-chancellor at Oxford Brookes University, where he inhabited, with slight unease, a room among the baroque glories of Robert Maxwell's former personal quarters. He has moved to an institution which serves some of the poorest areas of north London and admits 70 per cent mature students, 25 per cent from ethnic minorities. Mr Roper plainly relishes the challenge of a very different world from a millionaire's mansion - for example, a former mirror factory in the Holloway Road is to become a hi-tech learning centre. The university has just been congratulated on its excellence by the Higher Education Quality Council.

In the context of providing access for mature students from Camden, Islington and Hackney, it is easy to see why Mr Roper thinks that A- levels may not be up to the job they are supposed to do.

'What we want to know about students is their ability to benefit from higher education, what preparation they have had, their general orientation,' he says. 'If universities were measured by the value they add to students' qualifications on admission, then it is universities like North London which would rightly come out best. It is the embodiment of wider access to university, and I am completely committed to that.'

But he does not think universities in the inner cities get much credit for devotion to their local communities. 'I don't see much sign that the money is there to back this mission. You see people who have come in with nothing and then go on to graduate study and do tremendously well. We should be prepared to invest in that, but as far as I can see institutions like North London face a deep- seated problem of resources.'

Mr Roper is obviously not going to be an easy member for the rest of the vice- chancellors' club to get along with. He is fully behind North London's student targets for gender, ethnic and age balance. That is not a notion which goes down well in more traditional establishments, some of which still rely almost entirely on A-levels to select their students.

The targets, monitored by a sub- committee of North London's governors, are fine as far as they go, Mr Roper thinks. But the university should not be complacent. There are still problems to be tackled over the employability of graduates. If you are older, female or black, this is not necessarily an advantage in the labour market, he says.

He does not see the higher education curriculum or teaching methods as sacrosanct either. Many academics, he thinks, still teach as they were taught 30 years ago. That, he suggests, is not satisfactory when the knowledge base in some subjects is doubling every few years.

Today's students, he argues, need competences as well as knowledge. Few will succeed without practical skills in information technology or a second language. Employers are looking for communications abilities and experience of teamwork. Many subjects lend themselves to a problem-solving approach. Multidisciplinary courses may be much closer to the real world than the old subject disciplines.

The ideas crackle out - and Mr Roper admits to being a bit of a gadfly to provoke a response. But underneath it all is a serious belief that higher education must change if it is to meet the needs and challenges of the next century.

'I am getting a good reaction to my remarks on university entrance,' he says. 'It has hit a chord. What people have to remember is that students are now paying for their education. Many graduate pounds 3,000 in debt. They are already asking a lot of searching questions, about a great deal more than the chaotic admissions system.'

(Photograph omitted)