How to choose the very best

Big reforms are being planned to make university admissions fairer. Lucy Hodges looks at some of the options

Some important changes will be introduced as a result of the Government's desire to improve access to higher education from disadvantaged groups and increase the amount people pay for their tuition. Universities that want to charge top-up fees are making plans to offer bursaries to students from low-income families to ensure they are not deterred from higher education. Bursaries are expected to be one of the main conditions laid down by the Office of Fair Access, or Offa, for those universities intending to charge more.

"Bursaries for living costs are vital otherwise we won't get widening participation," says Professor Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University and the man heading a task force on university admissions. According to Professor Ivor Crewe, the president of Universities UK (UUK), all universities are thinking about what system of bursaries they should implement when the changes take effect.

The bursaries will be offered on top of the £1,000 grant for poorer students proposed in the White Paper on higher education and should help to head off the rebellion threatened by Labour MPs who object to the fee rises. At present bursaries are offered by Oxford and Cambridge universities. Oxford gives a bursary of £1,000 to all students in their first year who have their fees paid and £500 for each year thereafter; Cambridge gives £1,000 a year to the same group.

The problem for Professor Crewe at UUK is that universities are having to plan for fees and bursaries in uncertain conditions. That makes it difficult for them to work out how much to charge and how much to give in bursaries. Offa has not been set up yet and an access regulator has not been appointed. Universities need to know by the autumn of 2004 at the latest what conditions Offa will impose, says Professor Crewe. That is because they print their prospectuses in January or February for the coming academic year. Essex University, which Professor Crewe runs, is likely to agree that a fixed percentage of its top-up fee money will go into providing bursaries but it can't decide much more than that until it has more information.

The financial aid system of the future will become much more of a patchwork quilt on the American model. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be offered a range of cash incentives - government grants will be supplemented by university bursaries and there will also be money available from hardship and other funds.

Professor Schwartz makes the distinction between paying for tuition and paying for board and lodging. It is important to ensure that bursaries are used for undergraduates' living expenses, not to pay for fees, he says. A law student at Oxford from a humble background will graduate with the same job prospects and capacity to earn as one from a wealthy background, so he or she will be able to pay back the tuition fees and should not have them waived. But it makes sense to help disadvantaged students with living costs to ensure they apply in the first place, he says.

Later this month Professor Schwartz's task force will publish a discussion paper listing ways in which universities might make their admissions systems fairer. That document will be issued for consultation. Afterwards a final policy document will be made public in January 2004. One area the discussion paper is addressing is the United Kingdom's unique system whereby applicants are offered places based on their teachers' predictions of A-level grades. Sir Peter Lampl, the millionaire philanthropist who set up summer schools for disadvantaged students and is on Professor Schwartz's committee, wants this system abolished. Two-thirds of predicted grades are wrong. "It is madness," he says. "People from less privileged backgrounds lose out because they don't have the confidence that those from independent schools have. They often don't aim as high and their teachers don't project them in the same way. But they may find they do better than expected at A-level. Then it is too late for them."

Instead he would like an admissions system based on results already obtained. He favours the proposals of a committee set up by the Local Government Association under the chairmanship of Chris Price, the former vice-chancellor and Labour MP, who suggested having a six-term year. Students would do their A-levels slightly earlier in the year, exams would be marked earlier and the admissions process could be shoehorned into the summer period. If so many universities can recruit students in the short space of time in clearing, why can't they apply the same speed to the whole recruitment process?

The other big issue in the discussion document will be American-style SATs tests to run alongside A-levels and give universities another way to weed out the best students. A big advocate of SATs, Sir Peter says they would enable universities to identify bright students who don't do well in A-levels either because they were badly taught or didn't work hard enough but would still benefit from a university education.

He is dismayed that Oxford and Cambridge are considering the introduction of new tests for entrance, though he accepts that their test for medical admissions is a good thing because choosing future doctors is a special case, he thinks. SATs are useful because they can be used across the ability range and, contrary to what some critics say, it is not easy to coach for them, he says. Sir Peter has examined research on SATs and found that 10 hours' worth of coaching does improve results but after that it ceases to have much effect. He therefore advocates giving all students taking SATs 10 hours of extra coaching.

Sir Peter plans a large pilot study on SATs to be run by the National Foundation for Educational Research in 2004. This would cover 50,000 young people and would enable researchers to compare these youngsters'A-level results with how they measure up at university. If this pilot shows that large numbers of bright youngsters can be identified through SATs who can't be identified through A-levels, it would make the introduction of SATs in the UK almost inevitable. It would also help to make university admissions fairer. As Professor Schwartz said in a speech last week to the Association of Commonwealth Universities, exposure to students from different backgrounds is an important part of higher education. "If we want students to have a well-rounded education that will equip them to contribute to society then we need to ensure that our classes are diverse, thus reflecting our population and talent."