Leading Article: Timely lesson for our universities

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The Independent Online
THE NUMBER of school-leavers going into higher education has more than doubled since 1987, from just over 14 per cent to 30 per cent. That is a remarkable and welcome achievement. Yet this country's centralised university admissions system remains substantially unaltered, save for being unified to include the former polytechnics.

This year it is having to cope with the additional strain caused by the Government's decision to penalise establishments that exceed, or fall short of, their recruitment targets by more than 1 per cent. As a result, fewer offers have been made, so more A-level candidates are being forced to go through the clearing system.

From the debate surrounding this week's A-level results, the cry for reform has emerged louder than ever. The scramble for places by candidates whose grades failed to meet the terms of their conditional offers puts a great strain on all involved. This year, with levels of attainment generally higher, the squeeze in the clearing system will be even more agonising.

There must, it is generally agreed, be a better way that enables those taking A-levels to make their final applications after learning their results, rather than before. This would mean either sitting the exams earlier, or going to university later.

The most favoured solution, at least among universities, is to switch to an academic year consisting of two 15-week semesters, starting in September and January and giving a long summer break into which a third semester could, if desired, be squeezed. But since a September start would aggravate existing difficulties, A-levels would either have to be taken considerably earlier, with a loss of study time; or, with modular courses becoming the norm, entry could be delayed until January. That would give students several free months in which to join, say, the young persons' task force suggested by Labour's Social Justice Commission.

Traditional English aversion to change is reinforced in this instance by the necessary independence guaranteed to universities by royal charter, and by the prevailing insistence that all universities are equal. A switch to longer semesters could not be imposed by the Government without arousing protests. To become the norm, more than 100 institutions, ancient and modern, would have to accept it.

A review being carried out by the Universities and Colleges Admissions System is due at the end of the year. It could tackle the pretence of equality by contemplating a system closer to that in the US, with its Ivy League and state universities. This country's might feature a premier league of national universities and a first division of regional universities, to which students could be attracted by financial inducements.

Many mature students need or prefer to live at home while studying and are happy to attend their local university. The most important point, however, is that those responsible for reforming a widely admired university system should act with some despatch.