The Government has finally set a deadline for change, reports Harriet Swain

Imagine a higher education system without Clearing. Imagine an end to frantic summer weeks when applicants who failed to achieve their predicted grades know that the first to hit the phones gets the place. The fantasy of awarding places on the basis of real results has preoccupied the powers that be for over a decade, although imagining how the system will work has proved tricky.

The fantasy came a step closer to reality this summer when the Government set a deadline for change. From 2008/9 pupils who achieve better grades than expected will be able to try for a more demanding university, without risking an offer they have already received. Universities and students will also receive more information about each other before offers are made and accepted to try to make for more successful matches and reduce the numbers going through Clearing.

The Government also announced that, by 2012, all university places should be awarded after results are published.

The impetus for change comes from concerns that the process discriminates against state school pupils. More than half of the predicted grades turn out to be wrong and underestimates are more common for pupils at state school.

Wes Streeting, vice president (education) at the NUS, says: "For many students, particularly those from under-represented backgrounds, aspiration and confidence are big issues and to have the grades under their belt at the time they apply will make a huge difference." He says it will also eliminate the long period of uncertainty students have between making their applications and confirming a place.

Under the proposals, pupils applying in 2008/9 will be able to access clearer information about the qualifications they will need and universities will need to supply feedback on why they have rejected applications.

In return, applicants will have to supply UCAS with more information about their own achievements. AS results and vocational qualifications are likely to be included on the new-look UCAS forms and should eventually supersede predicted A-level grades.

In addition, no offers will be made before the January 15 deadline (October 15 for Oxbridge candidates) "to remove the temptation for students to submit early, ill-researched applications in the hope of securing an early offer".

While the number of choices applicants put on their UCAS form will go down from six to five, (except for medicine, dentistry and veterinary studies which will remain at four), they will be able to carry on applying to different institutions until the end of June if they are rejected from all their choices.

But the key change will be a pre-Clearing week when candidates will be able to try for a more prestigious institution if they have underestimated their grades. Under the current system they would usually need to take a gap year and reapply.

The practicalities will be up to a group led by the universities, with input from UCAS. A chairman will be announced within the next few weeks and work on the proposals will start in the new academic year.

UCAS says the latest it could put change into effect would be March next year for 2008. But here lies the problem. Co-ordinating all the higher education institutions will not be easy. Admissions officers already see obstacles ahead in putting in place a new system even by 2012, which is why the Government has proposed a review in 2010 to reassure them. They also see problems with the interim ideas. They suggest that making Clearing students wait while others try to trade up, for example, will be unrealistic.

Laura Kishore, deputy chair of the admissions practitioners group, part of the Academic Registrars Council, says the current system allows universities and students to develop a relationship before the student arrives at university, which will be difficult to achieve if admissions are organised over a shorter timescale.

The higher education minister Bill Rammell acknowledges that the new system will depend on the universities co-operating and will involve significant changes. But he is convinced that it needs to happen - and probably will. "My view is that this new system can be made to work by the benefits being made clear from the 2008/9 arrangements," he says.

Others doubt the universities' commitment. John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders says: "We have been trying to move to a post qualification admissions system for at least 12 years and at every stage universities have found numerous reasons why it shouldn't happen."

The end of Clearing has not become a reality quite yet.