A high-level inquiry into the future of the academic year, set up by university vice-chancellors and funding councils, has decided that it should start a month earlier, in September. The year would be split into two 15-week semesters, with the first ending before Christmas and the second in May.
But to do this A-level results would have to be published early so that students could accept offers from universities before September, a move the exam boards say they are not prepared to make. The result is an impasse.
The review, headed by Lord Flowers, has looked at several models, including one in which students would apply to university after they got their A-level results and start in November.
Vice-chancellors were told on Friday that the final report of the Flowers committee would recommend a September start. A plan to let first-year students start later in order to solve the A-level problem has been rejected, according to a paper shown to a meeting of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals.
The universities say that the recent expansion of higher education, from one school leaver in five 10 years ago to almost one in three today, means they need to make better use of space. Instead of three 10-week terms plus a long summer holiday, they want two 15-week semesters followed by a long break, which could be used for extra teaching or research.
The exam boards say they have been asked to move the results forward by a week, but the universities now say a few days might be adequate.
John Day, secretary of the biggest A-level board, the Associated Examining Board, said the results might even be later in future because a new code of practice introduced by John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, would demand more rigorous checking.
'If we could bring the results forward by a week we would have done it already. There is tremendous pressure on boards to get results out earlier and earlier.
'We could do it if the A- level exams were brought forward, but the Government doesn't want that because it would encroach further into the school term,' he said.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said a November start would be more sensible. 'We wish to see the introduction of a system under which students apply after the A-level results are published. We have received universal support for this from schools, careers organisations, parents, academics and the exam boards,' he said.
A spokesman for the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals said that most universities favour a September start, but declined to comment further until after the Flowers report is published. However, some vice-chancellors seem to feel the exam boards can be persuaded to change their minds.
Even among the universities, support for the scheme is not universal. Lord Flowers commented, when publishing an interim report in April, that the responses of Oxford and Cambridge to his proposals had differed only in one respect. Cambridge had told him to 'Sod off, please,' he said.
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