Leading Article : A clearing system that fails to make the grade

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The Independent Online
And they're off. The starting gun fires this morning for the official beginning of the annual race to fill the remaining places in universities and colleges. Worried A-level candidates who have failed to make the grade for their chosen course and those who have so far failed to secure an offer plunge into the clearing system run by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. (The full official course listings begin in Section Two of this newspaper today and continue over the next few weeks.)

Last year more than 40,000 candidates found places in this way and a similar number is likely to be involved this year. Yet the uncertainty clearing creates for both candidates and universities worried about financial penalties if they miss their student number targets is quite unnecessary.

At the moment, the process of applying to university may reward the successful gambler. Students make six choices and are offered places on the basis of likely A-level grades - say two Bs and a C. They are allowed to keep two offers. Unless they are very confident, the likelihood is that they accept one from an institution that they really want to attend and a lower, perhaps much lower, one from another university as a kind of insurance. Offers are made on the basis of GCSE results and predicted A-level grades which are highly unreliable - half are too high and a quarter too low.

It would make much more sense if candidates applied to university only after they had received their A-level results. They would thus avoid making choices which are too ambitious or not ambitious enough. Admissions would be speeded up because more people would get into their first choice. Some experts estimate that applications in the first round would be down to a sixth of the present level, saving time for both candidates and universities. The changes required are comparatively small. The exams might need to be held slightly earlier so that the results could be out by the beginning rather than the middle of August. Instead of starting two-thirds of the way through September, as many now do, university terms would need to start a week or two later, at least for first-year students.

That would mean that the later part of August and the early part of September would be an extremely busy time for schools and universities but time would be saved earlier in the year when university choices and applications take valuable hours away from A-level study. It would be a small price to pay for a system which would be much less of a gamble than the present one. Even the pen portraits that schools provide of their pupils would be more up to date because references could be written at the end rather than the beginning of the school year. The interview, which played such an important part in the university entrance 30 years ago, is now used for relatively few courses, so great are the numbers applying.

Talk of reforming the system has been going on for years. So why does it remain unchanged?

A series of objections has been raised from all sides. Schools have been reluctant to hold exams during the Spring Bank Holiday to enable the exam season to be brought forward. Exam boards have also insisted they need the time at present allocated to marking to ensure that rigorous standards of monitoring and grading are maintained.

Of late, both have indicated that they are willing to be more flexible and some heads have spoken in favour of the change. Independent school heads in particular have made a vigorous plea for more rational arrangements.

The real difficulty lies neither with schools nor exam boards but with universities.

An innate conservatism in higher education blocks proposals for change at every turn. The vice-chancellors, who have been trying to work out a new system for several years, drag their feet. They have recently proposed a feeble compromise to give students the choice of applying either before or after their A-levels. In practice that means that the vast majority of people will continue to apply in the December before they take their exams. Schools will argue that to be sure of a place, students should still apply early.

The dangers of the present system have already become alarmingly apparent this year with some universities, which are desperate to fill places, ringing students at home so that they can bypass the official clearing operation. Some institutions fear that they will not know until the beginning of term whether their students have been poached. That could be avoided if people applied after their results slips were in their pockets. The sooner the vice-chancellors wake up to the need for change the better.

The more they delay, the more it looks as though the nation's academics are reluctant to give up their research, trips to foreign universities or just their month in the Dordogne for the sake of the students they will teach. They have no good reason for refusing to accept a post-A level admissions system that will secure fairness and peace of mind for thousands of young people.