Theoretically they can only be released in exceptional circumstances from what amounts to a written contract with institutions from whom they have conditionally accepted places. But since it is hard to enforce sanctions against them, it is the universities who are being warned to abstain from poaching. Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), has appealed to them not to break rules essential to the effective working of a centralised system.
The aged mechanism is under particular stress this year. For the first time, former polytechnics are included with the universities; previously, A-level candidates could hold two offers in each sector. Universities are, furthermore, to be penalised by the Government if they exceed or fall below their recruitment targets by more than 1 per cent. So they have made fewer offers than usual, and more students will have to endure the clearing process.
It is widely felt that it would be much better if A-level candidates could make their final selection immediately after receiving their results. At present they have to indicate their preferences the previous autumn (with a 15 December deadline), and receive offers in March or April. Since neither they nor their teachers know accurately how they will fare, all parties are operating in the dark; and candidates suffer the additional stress of knowing what target they must hit to fulfil their ambitions.
This could be avoided in two ways. One would be as a by-product of a switch by more universities from three 10-week terms to two or even three 15-week ones, as advocated last December by the Flowers report, but strongly resisted by Oxbridge and the like. Either first-year students could start a month later, or - since courses would be self-contained, modular units - not until the January semester.
Alternatively, existing procedures could be greatly speeded up. Candidates' applications could be transmitted to Ucas on school computers and by similar means to universities. A-levels could be taken a little earlier, and papers corrected in much less than the present seven-odd weeks. For the good of all concerned, this less drastic change should be adopted as soon as practicable.Reuse content