Leading article: No change suits the universities

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The Independent Online

The universities are intent on skewering carefully laid plans to reform the UK's arcane system for admission to higher education. The umbrella group, the Universities UK, is in favour of change; so is UCAS, the admissions body. A report by Steve Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, on university admissions argued that it made no sense to decide on applicants through predicted rather than actual grades at A-level. No other country in the world does it. But it is the way it is done here - and the universities seem determined to fight change. Why?

The answer is not terribly clear. When asked, admissions officers mutter about the "unintended consequences" of change. Pressed further, they complain about being unable to process student applications in the 10 or so weeks between the May half term (when the Secondary Heads Association says students could sit their A-level exams) and 1 October, when the university term could start. Or, at least they could process applications in that time, but they would be under pressure. It would mean they would have to put more emphasis on exam results and that would discriminate against non-traditional applicants. According to Steve Smith, Exeter's vice chancellor, universities need to work closely with schools and colleges over a period of time to ensure that candidates without conventional applications will pass muster. This is a clever argument. This government is very keen a) to increase the proportion of people in higher education and b) to increase the percentage of those from low socioeconomic groups attending university. So, anything that gets in the way of those aims is to be resisted or looked at very carefully.

Universities have fought off previous reform attempts. This time they are doing so through the working group set up under Sir Alan Wilson, director general for higher education at the Department for Education and Skills. Sir Alan was charged with implementing plans for a post-qualification application system (PQA) under which applications would be made once A-level results are published. He is now working on a set of compromise proposals. Predicted grades will stay. The number of applications would be cut from six to four and students who did better than predicted could apply again. Very little change from the way things are now.