Elite fret over admissions

May 13, 2005

Research-led universities are banding together to share their doubts about the Government's plans to allow students to apply to university after they receive their A-level grades, The Times Higher has learnt.

A panel comprising heads of admissions and pro vice-chancellors from the Russell Group and from the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities held its inaugural meeting last week. Its aim was to forge a "joint line" on proposals to move to a system of post-qualification applications.

A Whitehall working group, chaired by Sir Alan Wilson, the Government's Director-General of Higher Education, will this summer publish its proposals for the introduction of a PQA system by 2010.

But one source told The Times Higher that although the Russell Group-1994 Group panel would keep an "open mind", there were concerns about changes to the timing of the applications system and the practical problems for "collegiate universities".

"It's not that anyone is unwilling to change, just that one doesn't want to create more problems than one solves," another source said.

As The Times Higher revealed in March, Sir Alan's working group will propose that the number of institutions that students can apply to be reduced from six to four by 2008.

The group will recommend that by 2010, students submit expressions of interest to their four choices during a registration phase before they make formal applications after receiving their A-level grades.

Michael Sterling, chairman of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, hinted that research-intensive universities favoured incremental change to the current system rather than a complete redrafting of how applications worked.

Professor Sterling said: "Increasingly, universities that have research as a major part of their mission are coming together to talk about areas of common interest.

"Sir Alan is helpfully looking for solutions and we all want to improve the admissions process, so there is a common objective.

"But rather than necessarily tear up the plant and look at the roots and then replant it and hope it will still grow, we want to move forward by careful adaptation of the present system where we can test new things and, if they don't work, change back."

Asked whether the 1994 Group had doubts about the merits of post-qualification applications, Alasdair Smith, chairman of the 1994 Group and vice-chancellor of Sussex University, said: "We can see a strong case for PQA, but it would have quite far-reaching implications.

"There is going to be a formal consultation about PQA, and the joint panel will be reporting back to us with advice."

Previous attempts to introduce a post-qualification applications system have faltered amid reluctance to adjust the dates of school and university academic years.

PQA was revived as an issue last year by Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, who recommended it to ministers in his report to the Government on fair admissions.

Sir Martin Harris, director of the Office for Fair Access, also offered tentative support to a post-qualification system late last year. He suggested that universities "reserve" between 5 and 10 per cent of places for A-level students who had underestimated their grades.

John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association, which proposed the PQA system last year, said: "When PQA comes in, it is vital that it has widespread support across the university sector. If this group helps bring about consensus, it is a positive move."


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