In 1968, when the students of France picked up a cobble-stone each and went hunting for riot police, the ostensible reason for their revolt was disgust with the inequalities of modern capitalism. In fact, as historians have pointed out, the causesof student unrest lay not in too little opportunity, but too much. Les evenements were a reaction to a massive expansion of higher education in post-war France, when the student population doubled in 10 years. As universities grew, they outran their resources. Classes became packed, services for students creaked, and suitable accommodation was only for the lucky few. The result was an explosion. Britain's own, more recent, student boom has also provoked frustrations, not least as a result of the chaotic way the admissions process has responded to growth. This has been based on the old conditional offer system, whereby students applied to collegebefore they knew their examination results. But with so many more students of different abilities now in the system, the business of finding a college and course has become an unpleasant and frantic lottery. Each August there are only a few weeks to match up the actual results to the offers. As a result, thousands of students find themselves desperately hunting for a course, and predatory colleges with unfilled places try to lure them in. The result is too many young people taking courses they are not interested in at colleges they loathe. This is a waste of talent and money.
Today's news that the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals' working group on admissions may be shifting policy is welcome. It makes good sense to set up a system where applications are only made when exam results are known. This would entail moving some A-level exams forward to the late spring. The working party accepts this, and believes that by installing a new computer system, and also bringing the notification of A-level results forward a week, the time scale for students to consider, apply and prepare for a new life is sufficient.
Perhaps. But there is one other measure that would help. Entry to university should be staggered, so that many students would not arrive at college until the January after their A-levels. These lucky individuals could then act out every student's dream -and take finals in the winter. That would leave the summer free for revolt.