A two-step university applications process could be introduced as a halfway house between the current reliance on predicted exam results and a full-blown post-qualifications process, it emerged this week.
Steven Schwartz, who this week published the Admissions to Higher Education Report he chaired for the Government, said that while his ideal was a full post-qualifications applications (PQA) system, he thought a hybrid system was more likely in the short to medium term.
Professor Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, said: "It would not be ideal for a lot of reasons but could be a transition phase."
A transitional system could see students choose their preferred universities and courses as they do now, before knowing their results. And, as now, universities would know what grades applicants were predicted to achieve. Universities would also be able to carry out interviews and look at any applicant portfolios.
But universities would not make offers at this stage. That would occur in the second application stage, which would take place after applicants get their exam results, currently in August.
Universities would be able to make instant offers, knowing what grades applicants had gained and having had the chance to pre-select and even interview applicants in the first stage earlier in the year.
There would be no wasted time making offers to people who did not make the grade or who changed their minds if, for instance, their results were far better than expected.
The second post-qualifications stage would do away with the need for clearing as offers would either be made on the strength of known grades.
Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has asked Sir Alan Wilson, director-general for higher education at the Department for Education and Skills, and former Leeds University vice-chancellor, to head a group to oversee the implementation of a post-qualifications applications system.
It is understood that the group will look at a range of options, including a two-stage system.
Mr Clarke said the PQA principle was "absolutely right and should be implemented". But he admitted that there were "serious practical issues that have to be addressed" first.
"We are not talking about next year or the year after, but we are going to get there," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, is also supportive of a two-stage system.
Mr McClaran told The Times Higher : "It is, broadly speaking, the model used in Australia, and Ucas is interested in the design of this system. We would want to investigate how it works to see if it is the answer to the structural problems of PQA."
Mr McClaran is due to visit Australia next month to learn more about the system.
Professor Schwartz's report says that making admissions decisions after exam grades are known will be fairer and more efficient. It will help students who lack self-confidence, the report says.
"There is anecdotal evidence that some students choose not to apply at all, or may restrict their choice of course because they do not think their marks will be good enough," it says.
The report admits, however, that a PQA system could reduce the amount of time available for assessing applicants.
Ucas said an eventual switch to a fully electronic applications system would help save time.
The Schwartz report also calls on universities to publish admissions policies, detailed criteria for course admission and an explanation of admission processes. Feedback should be provided to failed candidates who request it.
It rules out recommending positive discrimination and says that applicants should be regarded as individuals and not treated more or less favourably because of background, school or college.
But it says that institutions may consider factors other than A-level results, such as the results of additional tests, interviews or non-academic experiences, and adopt "holistic assessment" for borderline applicants and those for over-subscribed courses.
Professor Schwartz says that US-style scholastic aptitude tests are worth considering as a way of judging applicants' potential to benefit from a university education.
REACTIONS TO REPORT
* Tim Collins, Shadow Education Secretary
"Proposals to move towards assessment of university applicants on the basis of their actual rather than predicted A-level results are sensible in principle but will need detailed work in practice.
"However, the report must not be used to further the wider social-engineering agenda of a Government that clearly does not believe that access to higher education should be determined solely by academic merit."
* Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat education spokesman
"A speedy implementation is now crucial. No university should be allowed to use traditional practices and delay the urgent introduction of the new rules.
"It should not be for schools to bring forward their exams to meet the new government requirements but for universities to alter their admission system for the benefit of their future students."
* Ivor Crewe, Universities UK president
"We look forward to working with (Sir Alan Wilson's) group to ensure that a post-qualification application system is developed that is practical for both potential students and universities and also for other education stakeholders."
* Gwen Evans, Association of Teachers and Lecturers deputy general secretary
"We have a major concern about the apparent logic of waiting for the final results. Starting in mid-August is likely to create an over-hasty scramble that runs the risk of further disadvantaging those who are underrepresented in the most prestigious higher education institutions."
* Hannah Essex, National Union of Students vice-president (education)
"Students should have as much information available to them as possible when applying to university, and applying after results day will hopefully alleviate some of the stress that applicants increasingly find themselves under."
* John Dunford, Secondary Heads Association general secretary
"I very much hope that, after ten years of talking, post-qualification application will at last be implemented by British universities."