Admissible evidence

February 10, 1995

The United Kingdom's university admission system is to be redesigned. Not before time. The speed with which agreement in principle has been reached by the main players seems, however, to have taken some by surprise, and reservations are now beginning to surface (pages 2, 13).

There will be difficulties, of course. Timetables for publication of entry requirements and arrangements and marking schedules will all have to be juggled. Above all harnessing the technology - now at last sufficiently developed to cope with this massive task - to students' and institutions' needs rather than let it drive the system, will be a challenge. Fortunately, the redesign is for once being undertaken by higher education itself rather than imposed from outside. The risk that institutions' academic interests will be ignored is therefore minimised.

It will be important in designing the new system to take account of anxieties, particularly those of people who, like the Standing Conference of Principals, fear that the personal elements in the present selection arrangements may be lost. But it is also important that snags are not allowed to delay or frustrate this most necessary reform.

There is no intrinsic reason why a post A-level system should exclude the possibility of interviews and visits and open days during the year before applications are made should certainly continue as part of the process of making an informed choice. Students can and should still talk to admissions officers. Tutors should still be able to identify students they particularly want to take. Only the formal application needs to come after students know whether they are qualified.

There is, however, an underlying issue to be addressed. UK universities are unusual in Europe in having the right to choose their students. This allows institutions to develop particular characters; it greatly adds to the rich diversity of our higher education; it is much envied by continental universities and is an important element in our universities' autonomy. It also, of course, allows discrimination - or charges of discrimination - on less defensible grounds as Oxbridge is all too aware.

Any new system will shift the emphasis on choice in students' favour. So it should. We can no longer run a mass system on craft apprentice basis. But it will be important to consider how as much as possible of the personal element for both students and tutors can be retained.

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