University admissions chief calls for reform

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PUPILS SHOULD apply to university after they receive their A- level results, the head of the applications system suggested yesterday.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of the polytechnic clearing system, and the future corporate affairs chief executive of the new Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), said reforms were needed to improve choice and eliminate unfairness. Ucas takes over from the separate university and polytechnic systems (Ucca and Pcas) in August this year.

The present procedures, devised three decades ago, are struggling to cope with the new 'mass market' in higher education applications. About 395,000 candidates competed for 230,000 places at 150 higher education institutions last year, with about 5,000 admissions tutors deciding whether to make them an offer. 'Can the gentlemanly rules introduced in the early Sixties cope with the jungle of the Nineties?' Mr Higgins asked.

Most prospective students have to decide their course options about a year before they start, when they are only 17, and when their creative abilities are developing most rapidly. Course lists and details are compiled 20 months before entry dates, so they are already eight months or more out-of-date by the time pupils fill in their forms. By the time they sit their A-levels, new courses and places may have become available.

Applicants are also expected to make impossible tactical decisions, Mr Higgins said. Some university admissions tutors, for example, discriminate against pupils who have applied to Oxbridge, while others discriminate in favour of them - but the pupil cannot predict each tutor's attitude. Other admissions tutors, notably on medical courses, discriminate against applicants who apply for a back-up subject because they think the applicant may not be confident or committed enough.

Mr Higgins told a higher education conference in London that the whole process of entry to university needs to be rethought. The falling value of student grants, withdrawal of benefits, and increased student borrowing would lead to more people deciding to study part-time, live at home, and move in and out of higher education and work as they attempted to pay their way to a degree.

Application procedures rely too heavily on chance, he said. Candidates who apply early occasionally gain an unfair advantage because tutors fill places before the 15 December deadline. Late government funding decisions also affect the number of places available, after applicants had made their decisions. Mr Higgins also urged schools and universities to stop keeping teachers' references secret from pupils.

He suggested that schools might adopt a four-term year, ending in mid-June, with A-level results available by mid-July. Apart from anything else, he said, it would enable pupils to sit their exams before the hay-fever season. Universities would start their year later, in November, leaving three months to process applications and conduct interviews.

Alternatively, universities could stagger their starting times, with one entry in September and another in January.

Applicants would be more grown up when they apply, with a complete record of achievement. Admissions tutors would base their decisions on actual A-level results, rather than the notoriously inaccurate predictions of their candidates' schoolteachers.

The whole procedure would be 'more streamlined and cheaper to manage', with fewer students being plunged into the September 'beargarden' when unsuccessful applicants search for unfilled places through the clearing system.