Leader: Make time for a fairer system of admissions

August 15, 2003

If this is results day, it must be time for the annual exchanges on the dumbing down of A levels. This year, however, the argument has moved on a stage: the focus is on proposed reforms of the exams and of university admissions. Last summer's A-level debacle and a succession of hard-luck stories from candidates for leading universities have eroded confidence in both systems to the point where many observers think anything would be an improvement. But would it?

Universities have been strangely silent on the implications of Mike Tomlinson's blueprint for a baccalaureate-style diploma - perhaps because they see such a strong consensus behind the principles of broader sixth-form study and greater integration of academic and vocational courses. They may be wise to keep their powder dry since any change is a long way off and the detail is still being worked out. Broadening in the sixth form, for example, would involve supplementary courses such as critical thinking and teamworking, rather than an extended menu of traditional subjects.

Like the two previous proposals for an overarching diploma, success will hinge on the reaction of higher education. When (and if) the time comes, there will be political pressure to adopt the system as the benchmark for entry to university, but it is difficult to imagine admissions officers greeting the change with much enthusiasm. Just as Oxbridge dons used to regret having to pass over outstanding physicists who could not master O-level Latin, their modern equivalents in oversubscribed universities will be loath to miss out on high-flying historians with a blindspot in computing. Those in the "recruiting" institutions may be just as reluctant to insist on a full diploma if their mission is to widen participation.

Both ends of the spectrum are fully capable of setting their own conditions without a national straitjacket.

Post-qualification applications are a different matter, however. There can be no doubt that selecting students on the basis of actual results, rather than unreliable predictions, would be fairer to all concerned. The growing practice of "shopping around" by students with better grades than expected would be unnecessary and, as Steven Schwartz noted when launching the current debate, bright candidates who lack the confidence to aim high would be bolstered by knowing how well they had done. Professor Schwartz's admissions task force seems set to back the change, but ministers and universities will want to be assured on some practical points before they give their blessing.

Obviously, something will have to give in the timing of A levels (and Scottish Highers) or in the academic calendar if the entire admissions process is to be squeezed into the post-results period. There is an assumption in higher education that earlier exams are the answer, but schools and colleges will be understandably reluctant to lose teaching time in an already rushed course. The introduction of a six-term school year might ease that problem but, for all the talk, there is still no national move in this direction.

If universities were willing to make any concessions, there would surely have been some progress since their first working group on the subject convened in 1994. The impasse is not simply a question of stubbornness, however. Although exam marks could be returned more quickly and selection decisions made more quickly, time has to be allowed for appeals and for mundane tasks such as house-hunting. And just as important, the system must allow time for the consideration of personal qualities and not become focused solely on grades. If all this can be achieved, the prize would be worth the upheaval and might make A-level reform less urgent since universities could make their decisions on precise marks, rather than broad grades.

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