A-level bands are failing to distinguish between the brightest university applicants, according to a report out next week that may lead to the addition of two extra grades at the pinnacle of a reformed school-exam system.
The Tomlinson review of 14-to-19 education, which is due to publish its interim report on February 17, will call for GCSEs, A levels and vocational qualifications to be absorbed into a four-level diploma.
The Department for Education and Skills is unlikely to introduce the diploma - which would be split into entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced levels - before 2012.
The Times Higher has learnt that the interim report will acknowledge concerns that A-level grade margins are too wide. It will propose "detailed differentiation" of performance. Sources have suggested that the 15-member group, led by former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson, could recommend four grades to cover the A and B range at A level, in its final report in September.
The review's working group has yet to finalise details, including whether admissions tutors should have access to the percentage marks that candidates achieve in exams.
The interim report will also call for A-level students to undertake a piece of coursework that admissions tutors can treat as evidence of a candidate's "independent learning and research skills".
As well as taking specialist academic or vocational options, every A-level student would take a core course in literacy, numeracy and information technology, crediting their work experience and voluntary work.
The working group has also come down in favour of fewer exams and more assessment by teachers, lecturers and trainers.
The proposals follow lobbying by leading universities for greater grade differentiation to help distinguish between candidates.
Jane Minto, director of the Oxford Colleges Admissions Office, said: "We've been pushing quite hard for some time for some sort of grade differentiation, especially at the top end. Of course, academic ability is only part of the selection process."
Martin Eason, senior admissions tutor at Wolverhampton University, said: "I think that different universities did have different views, particularly about how the 'gold-standard' of the A level would be transformed into a new qualification."
Connie Cullen, director of admissions and schools liaison at York University, said: "We are being increasingly advised not to base decisions in a simple-minded way on marks and grades, so it will be just one more, but useful, piece of information - a bit of a finer mesh."
University admissions procedures are under review with a view to making them fairer for applicants from poor backgrounds, who tend to get fewer A levels and lower grades. But The Times Higher has learnt that the extent to which universities should be compelled to take students from underrepresented backgrounds has created a rift in the admissions to higher education review group, chaired by Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University.
Professor Schwartz is known to favour a carrot-and-stick approach that would see universities with a good access record receive financial rewards while poor performers would attract a financial penalty. But others in the group are more cautious. They are backed by officials within the DFES who argue that the group, which is due to issue its draft recommendations on March 2, should encourage rather than enforce good practice.
Some 54 per cent of respondents to the Schwartz review were in favour of a post-qualifications admissions system. But 34 per cent were unsure whether they supported it, despite official backing from Universities UK.
The English funding council this week said it planned to examine admissions bias. It wants to investigate the relationship between predicted and actual grades and how this relationship might vary. It will also look at whether potential in higher education can be assessed using the characteristics of an applicant's school or college.
Speaking at a Universities UK conference on widening participation this week, Alan Johnson, the higher education minister, said that universities were fair to applicants but that potential students from underrepresented backgrounds did not always apply.
He said: "There is a problem with certain universities being seen as too remote and not for people from certain backgrounds. It is vital that young people's aspirations are raised."