ADMISSIONS officers could be forced to raise university entry requirements in response to A-level grade inflation and persistent claims of dumbing down.
The Qualifications, Curriculum and Assessment Authority expects next Thursday's A-level results to show another improvement in grades attained. It would be the ninth successive increase in the annual pass rate, grades A to E, and in those gaining A grades.
QCA communications director Tony Millns said: "It is a very difficult thing to predict but if results continue to improve then presumably we will get admissions officers employing the simple device of increasing the grade requirements over the next two to three years."
Critics have claimed that the improvement in pass grades A to E, about 1.5 per cent a year on average since 1989, and the A-grade increase, about 0.6 per cent a year, are signs that A-level standards are slipping and that the exams are getting easier.
Mr Millns denied any dumbing down. He said: "There is simply no evidence for a fall in standards of achievement.
The latest UCAS figures show universities are becoming more attractive to people from poorer backgrounds even though the middle classes retained their dominance.
Between 1996 and 1997 the proportions of people from skilled manual, partly skilled and unskilled classes increased by 7,231 or just under 8 per cent. This was more than offset by an 11,000 (8 per cent) rise in numbers of people from class two, which includes managers, lecturers and journalists. Numbers of applicants from class one, professional, fell by 1,508 or 3 per cent.
Classes one and two retained their grip in areas such as medicine and dentistry, with nearly seven out of every 10 applications to those subjects from these classes. Just 6.3 per cent were from partly/unskilled backgrounds.
The socioeconomic shift has been accompanied by rapid growth in the number of applicants with general national vocational qualifications. In 1995 there were 9,380, some 2.5 per cent of the total. This had risen to 29,757 (7.5 per cent) last year. The proportion with A levels as their main qualification fell by 1.4 per cent between 1995 and 1997.
Alan Smithers at the Centre for Education and Employment Research said that while standards had "almost certainly" changed, A levels remained an entirely valid "currency" allowing universities and employers to differentiate between students' academic worth.