An admissions scheme that allows students to "trade up" to a more selective university if they do better than expected in A levels has been dismissed as "an unsubstantiated sop" by head teachers.
A new "adjustment period" for applicants will start next summer. It will provide a five-day window during the clearing process when students who have exceeded the A-level grades required by their first-choice university will be able to reapply to courses with higher entry requirements.
But last week at a Higher Education Policy Institute conference on admissions that was supported by Times Higher Education, Tim Hands, the master of Magdalen College School, said: "This is an unsubstantiated sop introduced because PQA (post-qualification applications) has not come in on the timetable MPs wanted."
John Morgan, vice-president of the Association of School and College Leaders, agreed with Dr Hands.
Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said the number of places for those seeking to take advantage of the adjustment period was a "big unknown".
"By definition, most of the places to which students will be seeking adjustment will be very competitive courses ... that at the moment don't have vacancies in clearing," he told the conference. Admissions staff at Oxford, Manchester and University College London agreed.
Laura Kishore, chair of the admissions group of the Academic Registrars Council, said she believed the number of students able to take advantage of the system was likely to be "in the hundreds".
A spokesman for the Russell Group said it supported the idea in principle but said the difficulties may outweigh the benefits. "Is it going to be students from non-traditional backgrounds who take advantage of this, or will it be students from higher socio-economic groups with better information?" he asked.
Earlier this year, a Universities UK document said the adjustment period could be "a stepping stone" towards a full PQA system, under which applicants would apply for degree places after receiving results.
Mr McClaran said: "It must be more rational to apply when the results are known rather than being guessed at - but I think there are quite powerful structural reasons why it hasn't come about," he said.
PQA: EIGHT OUT OF TEN TEACHERS PREFER IT
September 2004: Schwartz report on admissions says some applicants might be restricting their choices because they do not expect to get the marks needed for their first-choice course. The report recommends a post-qualification application (PQA) system.
October 2004: The Secondary Heads Association recommends PQA be in place by 2008.
March 2005: Whitehall plans revealed for universities to cease using schools' predicted grades to select students within three years.
September 2005: Old universities warn against creating a last-minute "panic" for places.
December 2005: Campaigning for Mainstream Universities says old universities want to preserve "elitist" elements in admissions process rather than adopt "full-blown" PQA system.
January 2006: A poll shows that eight out of ten teachers believe sixth-formers should apply for degree places after receiving their A-level results.
May 2006: New universities and students are disappointed after the Government says a full PQA system will not be in place before 2012.
December 2007: The Government reconfirms its desire for PQA as the new "adjustment period" is confirmed.
July 2008: A Universities UK report says many barriers remain to PQA and warns that PQA could increase the risk of students dropping out.