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Leading article: Change is long overdue in university admissions


It is strange how many absurdities in this country pass almost unnoticed until someone finally suggests their wholesale reform, after which almost everyone agrees that the suggested change is not only desirable but long overdue. Such is the case with our system of university admissions, which until now has been based on predicted rather than achieved results – one of whose consequences is that tens of thousands of young people with the "wrong" grades have to fight their way through a complex and highly stressful clearing system, chasing the university places that are still available.

The changes proposed by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, Ucas, bringing forward A-levels by 15 days so that students can compete on the basis of results that they have actually obtained, are to be welcomed principally because – whatever the state of university applications in the post-tuition fees era – they would make life much simpler for everyone.

A system that awards university places on the basis of expected results is always going to be confusing, even when those making those predictions are doing their utmost to be entirely responsible. Not surprisingly, the Ucas report reveals that there has been a significant margin of error. Only just over 51 per cent of predicted results turn out to accurate, with just over 41 per cent containing over-predictions. About 40,000 young people are then thrown into the clearing system, a process that the report describes as "frenzied" and over-reliant on luck. Much can depend on getting through to the right person on the telephone.

It is not hard to guess who benefits most from this opaque business: highly confident young people from relatively privileged backgrounds who have a strong sense of entitlement to a place at university. According to Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, today's system works best for "those best equipped to navigate the outdated structures" – not much of a recommendation.

To some extent, vested interests have been behind the reluctance of the participants in the debate – the universities, the exam boards, the Government and the schools – to change the system. It will be difficult to make the switch. Exams would have to be brought forward, the marking period will have to be tightened up, and the university academic year would be pushed back.

There are also honestly held opinions in all quarters as to why the changes suggested in the Ucas report would be wrong. There are also questions over whether students would have enough time to complete their A-level syllabus given the shorter period in which to study it. Would universities be able to spot potential in a candidate from a disadvantaged background if they have slightly lower A-level grades – as happens in some circumstances now at our most elite universities? This is a point made by the Russell Group, which represents 20 of the most elite and popular universities in the UK, in its response to the review.

But the counter-arguments, we believe, are much more convincing. The changes to the exam timetable and the academic year are not so significant, and their introduction need not have a severely adverse effect on the system. Another point to be made in favour of change concerns disadvantaged students: some are more likely to have the courage to apply to our more popular universities once they have their results, assuming they have done well in them.

All in all, it seems to be the moment to grasp the nettle. The debate cannot just go on and on and the clarity, fairness and simplicity that the new system would bring with it outweigh any potential disadvantages. The universities minister, David Willetts, in his higher education White Paper, has given the debate a kick-start. Now, for the sake of both universities and university applicants, words need to lead to action.