Radical proposals to transform the student admissions procedure could reduce some universities to little more than clearing institutions mopping up candidates who fail to secure places on sought-after courses.
Selectors in traditional and new universities have expressed grave doubts about the plans for a new system being circulated by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals this week. Consultations begin next week and, according to early responses, the proposals are set for a very bumpy ride.
A two-phase arrangement is recommended for 1999 entry, combining pre- and post-qualification admissions and reducing the number of student choices again.
In phase 1 students would apply for four universities of their choice, with no order of preference, between November and February. Only one offer could be held and if no place were secured candidates could apply through phase 2. This would operate after A level results and up to two choices would be allowed with no order of preference.
In the current admissions system students are allowed six choices of institution compared to 12 a decade ago. Anne Richards, director of admissions at Central Lancashire University, said universities had yet to evaluate the impact of reduced choice and were therefore unlikely to endorse a further scaling down of choices.
"This two-phase proposal could push some universities to become clearing institutions," she said. "Those institutions regarded as very competitive would be likely to get all their applications in phase 1 leaving those not so competitive places with phase 2 candidates. This will leave them with a very big guessing game over filling their places."
Under the new scheme conditional insurance offers would be abolished. At the moment students can hold a firm offer from a university, as well as an insurance offer in case they do not get the required grades for their first choice. Under the new scheme students failing to make the grade have to start again in phase 2. One admissions tutor, at a very highly rated university, pledged to "fight tooth and nail" against the proposal which would "seriously diminish student choice at a time when universities are talking about charging students fees".
Brian Smith, vice chancellor of the University of Wales College of Cardiff and leader of the CVCP's working party on admissions, said the proposals were intended to increase post-qualification admissions by strengthening the clearing system (phase 2) which would then evolve into a more legitimate part of the admissions process.
But selectors fear universities are highly unlikely to hold places open for phase 2. Jane Minto of Oxford University said she expected all Oxford candidates would apply through phase 1. "This will lead to concerns here about the abolition of conditional insurance offers because we like our candidates to be able to hold possibly less stiff offers from other institutions," she said.
However Roger King, vice chancellor of Humberside University, said many of the newer universities would be quite comfortable with the abolition of conditional insurance offers since they were more dependent on the clearing system for recruitment already.
Ian Pickering, head of admissions at Liverpool University, was also in favour of abolishing conditional insurance offers but expressed serious misgivings about the extent to which information technology was being relied on to deliver phase 2. "I am not at all convinced universities will leave any places open for phase 2 if they have the option to fill them in phase 1," he said.