Giving A-level students marks instead of grades - an idea put forward by the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency and the master of New College, Oxford, Alan Ryan, last week - seems a breathtakingly simple solution to fine-tuning admissions until it is remembered that our Byzantine applications system means that most applicants have neither marks nor grades when they apply. Conditional offers and rejections based on marks could provoke even more resentment over cut-off points than do grades. Which suggests that the pre-A-level application system has had its day.
It is indeed extraordinary that so large and varied a higher education system still has centralised admissions at all. Devised nearly 40 years ago for a very much smaller, more homogeneous and more selective agency, it seems probable that the system itself, with its elaborate tariffs, secret references and emphasis on full-time, post-school study, is an impediment to the broader, more flexible, part-time, drop-in, locally organised higher education that looks like being the best way to attract more non-traditional students.
Admissions is just one aspect of the extraordinary centralisation of British higher education. The "sector" (the word itself is a giveaway) is centrally funded and subjected to common legislation, regulation and inspection - a state monopoly. Like all monocultures, this makes it highly vulnerable to changing circumstances. This vulnerability could increase further if, as the head of the admissions service predicts this week, colleges are swept into the system too. Exam board fiascos provide one illustration of this vulnerability as we saw in Scotland two years ago and are seeing again in this week's panic over Edexcel's errors. Another is the growing worry over admissions for 2002 if would-be students decide en masse to take a gap year while the government gets its act together over fees and bursaries. In today's highly controlled conditions, institutions have little scope to help themselves. Such dependence on the whims of politicians is not healthy.