Time to change admissions

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The United Kingdom is thought to be the only country in the world with a university admissions system based on predicted rather than actual grades at A-level. Students apply to up to six universities the year before they leave school and their teachers predict the grades they think they will achieve. These predictions are notoriously unreliable. Teenagers often change quite noticeably in their last year at school. They may become more or less serious about their studies; they may suddenly discover that they are not interested after all in three more years studying French or physics. And they may find that they want the challenge of something they have not encountered at school – archaeology, say, or even the dreaded media studies. But they are stuck with their application unless they decide to drop out and go round again.

The United Kingdom is thought to be the only country in the world with a university admissions system based on predicted rather than actual grades at A-level. Students apply to up to six universities the year before they leave school and their teachers predict the grades they think they will achieve. These predictions are notoriously unreliable. Teenagers often change quite noticeably in their last year at school. They may become more or less serious about their studies; they may suddenly discover that they are not interested after all in three more years studying French or physics. And they may find that they want the challenge of something they have not encountered at school – archaeology, say, or even the dreaded media studies. But they are stuck with their application unless they decide to drop out and go round again.

A system based on predicted grades means that applicants have to hedge their bets in case they don't reach them. They feel they must apply to a range of universities – some rated ones in the hope that they do well enough and some less rated ones in case they don't. That, in turns, means that universities are snowed under with applications, many of which aren't serious and will come to nothing. The bureaucracy mushrooms with many university admissions officers making four times as many offers as places.

Why not have students apply after they have their grades? Some influential people have been trying to secure change for at least a decade to no avail. That's because some other influential people – mainly in higher education – think everything is fine the way it is. What the universities care about is having the students to fill the places – and to have them in plenty of time to plan ahead. They worry about a system like the one proposed by former Labour MP Chris Price where A-levels would be taken three weeks earlier in the year and results would come out at the end of July. That would enable students to apply to university with their grades in their hands. It would mean everyone having to make decisions more quickly but it would reflect students' performance and interests at the end of their schooling. Isn't that the sensible way to go?

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