University admissions officials are proposing to extend the winter deadline for applications by up to two months, to help teachers give better predictions of A-level grades and make sure sixth-formers opt for the best degree courses.
The proposals, due to go out to consultation later this year, would also allow admissions tutors to use the results of new AS-level exams equivalent to half an A-level when they decide whether to offer places.
Tony Higgins, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), said the change would help students make informed choices and improve the information available to admissions tutors. At present students must apply to university by 15 December for entry the following October.
Because the applications are made months before students take their exams, admissions tutors must rely on predicted A-level results when they make offers.
Mr Higgins said: "If we extend the closing date from December to 31 January or 15 February, people would apply later, more secure in the knowledge of what they want to do. Certainly, some people do not realise the institutions already look at GCSE results. In the future, people might be applying after getting their AS-level results. It is also conceivable that if the applications are later, they might apply after their mock A-levels."
Reformed A-level syllabuses, due to be introduced next year, would mean students taking up to five AS-levels in the lower sixth before "topping up" three subjects to the full A-level standard. But Mr Higgins told the Commons Select Committee on Education it was not practical to move towards a system of university applications after exam results were published. He said that sophisticated computer technology could not overcome problems with processing applications in the few weeks between exam results being published and the start of the new academic year.
Mr Higgins was speaking as new figures showed that the number of students who are being accepted to study nursing had leapt by 20 per cent.
More than 2,200 people had been accepted on to nursing degree courses by yesterday, compared with just over 1,800 at the same time last year. The rise is accompanied by a 3.7 per cent increase in those studying medicine, after the Government increased the number of places for trainee doctors.
With several weeks of the university applications cycle still left to run, the number of nursing students is likely to be the largest for several years.
The figures, compiled by Ucas, also show large increases in the numbers of people taking up places to study computer science, sports science business courses and music. Demand for places on physics, biology, engineering, sociology and teacher-training courses was, however, substantially down. It is the first time that admissions officials have given such a detailed picture of demand for courses during the clearing process, which matches students with unfilled university places. A total of 281,000 people had gained university places by lunchtime yesterday, compared with 279,000 at the same point in the process last year.
Mr Higgins said: "The increase in the numbers going into nursing is very welcome, and it shows that moves to make nursing a more attractive career are paying off.
"The continuing interest in computer courses reflects the demands and opportunities of the job market for people with good [information technology] qualifications."
He added: "The drop in demand for chemistry, physics and engineering has led some universities and colleges to close courses in these subjects in recent years."
Ups and Downs
Biggest risers (percentage changes in acceptances compared with the same point last year)
Computer science 16.9
Business and administration 16.0
Sports science 15.5
Science with arts 10.8
Software engineering 9.6
Marketing and market research 8.8
Social study combinations 8.7
Biggest fallers (percentage changes in acceptances compared with the same point last year)
Civil engineering -11.4
Mechanical engineering -10.2
Institutional management -8.7
Language combinations -7.5
Other general and combined studies -7.7
Building and construction -6.9
Electronic engineering -4.6
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