Leading Article: A new way in to universities

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The Independent Online
THE PRESENT method of matching candidates to places in higher education is traumatic for students and inefficient for universities. It badly needs reform. Not only has the number of university places in Britain expanded fourfold since the UCCA form system was established 30 years ago; the variety of both students and courses has grown enormously, too.

Candidates should no longer be forced to choose 18 months in advance what they want to study and where. And universities, fined if they 'overbook' their courses, can no longer be expected to rely on the uncertainty of 'conditional offers', binding them to offer places to candidates who achieve specified A- level grades. The review of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service concludes rightly that tinkering with the current system will not be enough. It argues convincingly that a radical overhaul of the entire admissions system is needed. But neither of its two options looks quite right.

Its first idea starts from an excellent premise: that universities should clarify and publish the admission criteria, which now tend to be kept vague and secret. As a result, applicants would discover in advance whether they have a realistic chance of being admitted. They would send in a form before taking A-levels, and would be given a score based on how closely applicants matched the course requirements. A-level results would be added to the scores as soon as they came in, and candidates would be allocated places by an entirely computerised method leaving no discretion to admissions tutors.

For all its attractions - and its success in places like Ireland and Hong Kong - this system has obvious flaws. Many personal qualities that make candidates attractive are hard to capture in a points system; and many courses (for instance, drama) would have difficulty in laying down a formal list of entry criteria. More worrying still, the system would discriminate against the borderline applicants who would be excluded automatically but might still have much to gain from university.

The report's alternative proposal is more attractive. There would be more room for personal interventions, but candidates would choose finally where to apply, and universities whom to accept, only after the A-level results came through. This would remove the system's dependence on conditional offers and the early choices forced on school students.

But it is far from clear that delaying the beginning of university courses to January, or restructuring the school year, is necessary to make such a system work. With speedier A-level marking, quicker processing of applications in the clearing house, and faster decisions by admissions tutors, it should still be possible to start the academic year in good time. The change would force alterations to the way the bureaucracies work, and require investment in computerisation. But it would be a better way to bring a creaking admissions procedure up to date.