Students would apply to university only after receiving their A-level results under a radical overhaul of the admissions system being considered by the watchdog.
Personal statements and predicted exam grades could be scrapped from the application process – and unconditional offers, which can pressure students into accepting a place, may end.
The Office for Students (OfS), the university regulator, has launched a major review of the system which will examine whether post-qualification admissions would be fairer to prospective students.
Possible reforms on the table include saving university offers until after a student has received their A-level grades, or delaying the application process altogether until after results day.
Sir Michael Barber, chair of the OfS, said: “We want to use our powers to convene, to consult and to discuss how we can arrive at a system of admissions where the interests of all students are paramount."
Other plans include removing the need for personal statements and references, as well as improving the accuracy of predicted grades or scrapping them, amid concerns they disadvantage poorer students.
The review will also consider the use of “inappropriate” marketing or incentives offered to students at a time when they might be especially vulnerable.
Sir Michael added: “There is widespread recognition that certain aspects of the current admissions system are not working, and may be especially unfair on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Universities UK (UUK), the organisation representing vice-chancellors, is also carrying out a review into admissions - which will consider whether students should be offered places after they have their grades.
Meanwhile, admissions service Ucas has been consulting students, teachers, and admissions staff to explore how the offer-making timetable and grade predictions could be improved.
A separate report from think tank the Higher Education Policy Institute has called on the government to make the first year of a degree “tuition free” for any student whose parents have not been to university.
On the admissions review, Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “There is growing support for a shift to a fairer admissions system, where students apply to university after they have received their results. Allowing students to apply after they receive their results would bring us into line with the rest of the world and eliminate the use of controversial unconditional offers.
“This review is the opportunity for us to finally move to a system where university offers are based on actual achievement rather than unreliable estimates of potential.”
Claire Sosienski Smith, vice president of higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said: “It has been clear that for some time the admissions system has not been working in the interest of students, so it is good to see that the OfS is taking action.”
Any changes to the admissions system will require the agreement of policymakers, universities and colleges, exam boards and schools, the OfS has said.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan said the regulator’s review would be “instrumental” in helping to assess how the system can be improved.
She said: “Our world-leading universities should be open to everyone with the potential. It is therefore vital that their admissions processes are transparent and work in students' best interests.
“It is clear some practices, such as conditional unconditional offers, can limit the opportunities and outcomes for some students and changes are needed.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of UUK, said the organisation is continuing its work through the review to look at which admissions practices are “fair, transparent and operating in the best interests of students”.
He said: “The UK-wide review will make recommendations informed by what applicants, schools and universities think works well and where the main challenges lie in achieving greater fairness, transparency and aspiration-raising.”
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