The university admissions system looks set for a radical overhaul. It is likely to be replaced by a system in which students apply after they know their A-level grades.
A unanimous decision that it was not worth "tinkering" with the present system was made by a steering group established last autumn by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals to look into admissions procedures. The decision has opened up the prospect of a new post-qualifications system being in place for the academic year 1997/98.
Reporting back to the CVCP at the end of last month, Sir Frederick Crawford, chairman of the steering group and vice chancellor of Aston University, said that the group had reached "surprising unanimity". Two sub-groups have been set up, one to consider the design and timetable of the new system and one to examine how information technology can be harnessed to speed up the process.
The steering group will report to the CVCP again in May, giving institutions time to register changes in prospectuses for 1997 admissions.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said: "We are absolutely certain this is the right way to go for institutions, applicants, schools and the Government. Now we need to devise a system that is robust, foolproof and fair, and to use IT to speed up the process without making it impersonal."
The sub-groups will have to tackle a number of problems, including the need to get A-level results out in time for a September start. A January start to the academic year has been ruled out.
"The new system must not drive the academic year," said Mr Higgins. "Institutions must be free to start the year when they want to in September."
The exam boards made it clear to the Flowers committee on the academic year which reported in 1993 that papers could not be marked any more quickly than at present without compromising quality.
John Dunford, a member of the committee and head of Durham Johnston comprehensive school and vice president of the Secondary Heads Association, said that schools and sixth-form colleges had been pushing for a post-qualifications system for the past two years.
"We are obviously reluctant to further shorten A-level courses but recognise that the new applications system will entail a degree of compromise on the part of universities, schools and the exam boards. I am sure that schools will play their part,"he said.
Another member of the steering group, Peter Richards, chairman of the council of deans of United Kingdom medical schools and faculties, said that the present system is "rather a nightmare" for medical schools, which have about 30 applicants per place.
He said that St Mary's Hospital Medical School, of which he is dean, had carried out research to be published shortly that would show that a post-qualifications system would be fairer.