Universities want A-level revolution

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RADICAL plans to revolutionise university admissions, which would mean students applying for college places after their A-level results, are being considered by vice chancellors.

An inquiry will begin this month into the proposed reforms. It would mean the end of clearing, the annual scramble for the last vacant places for students who did not meet their pre-A-level conditional offers. It could also mean holding exams earlier in the year to make the system workable.

Vice chancellors want to determine once and for all whether it is possible to change the system. At present, sixth-formers have to apply to university six months before they take their exams. Places are only confirmed if they reach the grades demanded by admissions tutors.

Reform would involve changing the system to allow students to wait and only make firm applications once they know their results. To counter the danger of it becoming log-jammed would mean speeding up marking if not holding exams earlier in the year, to give more time between the publication of results and the start of the university year.

Prof Mike Goldstein, who will head a Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals working party on the issue, said now was the time to "put up or shut up".

Admissions officials hope moves towards making university applications over the Internet will vastly speed up the process. The CVCP inquiry will also examine whether exam boards can produce results more quickly.

But vice chancellors will examine more radical options including reshaping the school year to bring forward public exams, currently held in May and June at the height of the hay- fever season. They will also be looking at far-reaching proposals in new education action zones for replacing the current three terms with four or even five so-called semesters, which could point to future changes across the whole education system.

Prof Goldstein, vice chancellor of Coventry University and chairman of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said he was open-minded about change, but wanted to bring forward firm proposals for reform.

He said: "We are looking at what a post-qualification admissions system could be and what it would mean. It could mean various changes to things like the date of examination board results or the start of the academic year or the implications of new technology for the applications process."

He stressed that any change would have to offer significant benefits over the present system. A UCAS survey of undergraduates published earlier this week suggested nine out of 10 students thought the current system was not efficient.

UCAS chief executive Tony Higgins has long advocated the benefits of reform, and has spearheaded moves to streamline admissions. A pilot scheme allowing pupils at thousands of schools to apply to university over the Internet is running for the first time. The National Union of Students also backs reform. "Students are not getting the best opportunity to make consumer choices," a spokeswoman said.

"If people don't get the right grades or do better than they expected they can go into the lottery of clearing and make a decision about three years of their life over the phone. We welcome any proposals which would eliminate the possibility of people making the wrong decision."