As university telephone switchboards cope with their busiest week of the year, this is an opportune moment to promote an admissions system that avoids the annual mad clearing scramble. It is time to put renewed effort into devising a more rational admissions process.
Instead of a system based on conditional offers and a final rush to put square pegs into squareish holes, Universities UK should reopen the discussions on a post-qualifications admissions process. A steering group formed by the then Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals in 1994 failed to produce the perfect system sought by universities, colleges and schools. But, in rejecting the proposals, the disadvantages of the present system were overlooked. Applicants have to make their course choices many months in advance of starting at university and their applications are judged on the basis of notoriously unreliable predicted grades. The later application deadline and the arrival of actual AS grades ameliorate these problems but are no substitute for a post-qualifications system that allocates students places on the basis of final A-level grades.
The practice of making firm offers on the basis of AS grades is a further reason to open up the debate again. AS-based offers are unpopular with schools as they give students an excuse not to work in the second year of their A-level course. A major reason for the Scots' Higher Still reforms was the need to overcome the problem of lack of work in the upper sixth by students with firm university offers already secured on the basis of grades in Higher examinations.
An important new factor is the debate about the shape of the school year and the widely supported proposals of the Local Government Association independent commission for a six-term year in schools. The first results are likely to be a two-week break in October and a fixed two-week holiday to replace the variable Easter holiday. With an earlier start and finish to the school year following from these changes, the commission has proposed that it would be sensible for GCSE and A-level examinations to take place in term five (April/May). Crucially for university admissions, this would mean that results would be available in July, opening up a much longer gap between A-level results and the start of the university term. The shortness of this period proved a major stumbling block for the CVCP steering group proposals.
The rapid increase in the number of online applications in the past three years suggests that this will soon become the normal mode of application. This will ease the transition to post-qualifications admissions, which will depend heavily on information and communications technology.
Post-qualifications admissions would produce more informed applications, from candidates who would have a better understanding of their needs and whose aspirations would be better matched with their ability. The course information available to them would be more up-to-date. Students performing better than expected in their examinations would be much better off than in the present system. Above all, post-qualifications admissions would be more equitable, being based on actual qualifications rather than unreliable predictions. Universities would benefit through having a smaller number of applications for each course and hitting admission targets would be much easier. With students having made better informed decisions on where and what to study, university dropout rates would be lower.
Of course, there would be disadvantages to post-qualifications admissions. Both applicants and universities would have to operate very quickly and efficiently, probably in a series of application rounds, and IT systems are not always wholly reliable. Applicants would have fewer choices. Special arrangements may have to be made for overseas applicants and the special needs of courses that require interviews would have to be met. Applicants with unusual skills and experience, such as mature students, must not be disadvantaged. Perhaps most difficult of all, measures would have to be taken to avoid informal pre-qualifications offers undermining the integrity of the process.
The Dearing committee, the Commons select committee and the LGA commission are among the bodies that have supported post-qualifications admissions. The current clearing round offers a timely reminder of the imperfections of the present system. A post-qualifications admissions system may not be perfect, but it represents a sufficient improvement to warrant another attempt to create a workable system that commands widespread support in universities, colleges and schools. UUK needs to take the first step as soon as possible.
John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association and was a member of the CVCP Steering Group on University Admissions.
Should we move from a predicted A-level system to a post-qualification system? Join the debate in the THES Common room.