University applications via the Internet could be a reality within the next two years, if technology and access advance sufficiently for the needs of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Moving on to the Internet is among the electronic options currently being considered by UCAS, which this week unveiled a computerised applications programme, to be piloted in the autumn. UCAS is also looking at the possibilities of the CD-Rom system developed by Higher Education Business Enterprises Ltd.
The Southampton Institute of Higher Education will be accepting applications over the Internet in this year's clearing process,which starts after A-level results are issued next week.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, said: "It is quite possible that the computerised system may be overtaken by technological developments elsewhere. We could certainly move on to the Internet within two or three years. To make this possible we would need to know that schools were able to access the Net and would have to get the right programme at the centre to validate applications. We don't have that at the moment, but there is talk of a Department of Trade and Industry programme which would give schools a link."
The computerised programme will be run in around 100 schools, which will be provided with dedicated software. Students will apply both through the new system and through the established paper system, providing a basis for comparison: "We will know by November whether the new system is working OK," said Mr Higgins.
He said he did not expect difficulties under the Data Protection Act, which limits electronic holdings: "Under the current system we hold everything except references, which are confidential, on our computer - any applicant can have access to what we hold. And there is no problem with references being accepted or transmitted by electronic means. The difficulties only arise if they are held for more than 30 days."
Southampton Institutes's use of the Internet for applications is an experimental one. David Brown, head of marketing said: "We know that a lot of people use it, and we offer a lot of high-tech vocational courses. What we will find out over the next few weeks is how many potential applicants have access to it."
Users can call up and fill in an institute application form provided on an Internet page. "It provides an alternative to the phone, particularly for people from overseas who may also be affected by large time differences," said Mr Brown.
He said that British applicants would also be required to enter the UCAS clearing process before they were accepted.
Mr Higgins said it was important that institutions conform to the clearing rules :"We don't want anyone getting an unfair advantage or before we know where we are we'll be back to the anarchy of the past. "