Leading article: A lack of vision on university admissions

The latest 'do nothing' decision from Ucas leaves serious criticisms unaddressed
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The Independent Online

A system allowing students to apply to university when they know their A-level results, rather than on the basis of the grades they are predicted would be clearer, fairer and more efficient. Why, then, has the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (Ucas) now unceremoniously dumped the reforms?

Universities and teaching unions which oppose such a change marshal a formidable array of arguments. To begin with, they claim, post-exam applications would throw too much emphasis on grades alone and give colleges less time to make a more rounded assessment of candidates' qualities. Students' education might also suffer, because bringing exams forward would reduce teaching time and the spur to study harder created by conditional offers would be removed. Furthermore, by shortening the time between A-level results and universities' decision deadlines, students who perform either better, or worse, than expected may be forced into rushed decisions.

Meanwhile, students whose papers went in for re-marking would be disadvantaged, schemes to help poorer children into university might be compromised, and universities might be left with little idea of student numbers for courses due to start imminently. Then there is the insurmountable difficulty of reconciling English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish school timetables.

Quite a catalogue. But Ucas's "do nothing" decision is no more satisfactory, leaving unaddressed many serious criticisms of an existing system which the admissions organisation itself has described as complex, cumbersome and lacking in transparency.

Ucas has made some concessions to critics, promising improved online access for applicants who do want access to its system after receiving their A-level results. But it has utterly failed to address the deficiencies of a system that relies on predictions when only 52 per cent of grades are forecast correctly and only a woeful tenth of students have all three of their results predicted accurately.

Not only are young people forced to make decisions about higher education too early in their A-level courses, before they have sufficient knowledge of their subjects. They would also be better off concentrating on the consuming task of writing their application forms in the time between finishing exams and getting the results.

As things are, the system is skewed towards pupils at private schools, where teachers are likely to have more experience with the application process and to know to apply to institutions way ahead of the official deadline because some courses' acceptance rates are higher for earlier applicants. Worse still, under-privileged children may opt for less-prestigious universities because they do not feel that they will achieve their predicted grades – and when they do achieve top marks, it may be too late for them to reapply.

It need hardly be said that the merits of any reforms to the university admissions procedure must outweigh any negative consequences. But the existing system is grossly inadequate, and leaving it untouched should not be an option. Rather than ducking the issue, it is incumbent upon Ucas to come up with ways to smooth the transition.

There is plenty of scope for imaginative thinking. One option might be to bring A-level examinations forward, to allow sufficient time for the process to take place afterwards. Any remainder of the school year might be spent on formal work experience programmes. Another possibility is to consider beginning the university year in January rather than October. More than anything, Ucas's blanket rejection of reform suggests a preoccupation with administrative convenience rather than the best interests of students.