The battle lines over the Government's proposed reform of the admissions system emerged this week as old universities warned against creating a last-minute "panic" for places.
Last week ministers published proposals to introduce a new clearing system in 2008, and to end the use of predicted A-level grades in admissions from 2010.
The 2008 changes - which would also see candidates apply to fewer institutions - would be the first step towards a system of post-qualification applications.
But the proposals prompted warnings this week that postponing the application process until after August, when A-level results are announced, would "sacrifice" the time universities allow to "build relationships" with candidates in favour of a rush to complete applications before the start of term. This time is currently devoted to giving students information about courses, accommodation and university life.
As an alternative to a full PQA system, ministers have suggested that universities reserve up to 15 per cent of their places until after A-level results are published to give applicants who performed better than expected an opportunity to change their choice of institution.
Officials at Oxford University expressed doubts about the proposals last week with a warning that it wanted to weigh the merits of all candidates against each other, rather than allocating some places while holding back others.
Colin Rickwood, pro vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, also cast doubt on the Government's claim that only 45 per cent of predicted grades were accurate.
Professor Rickwood said that "if you go within one point of the predictions, they are very close", adding that ministers were also making the "bold assumption" that applicants who received better-than-predicted grades would want to change their initial choice.
"Certainly we would want to see improvements in how the system operates, and the opportunity for students who do better than expected to exercise choice has some merit," Professor Rickwood said. "But how it is organised specifically will have to be looked at carefully.
"We'd be concerned to see anything that prevented us developing a relationship with our new admissions so we were doing everything in a panic just before the start of term."
Ministers have argued that a PQA system would be fairer to applicants - particularly those from poor backgrounds whose performance at A level is most likely to be underestimated.
Despite Oxford's intervention in the debate, Cambridge University declined to comment this week. The consultation on the Government's proposals will run until early December.
Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter university, said: "Moving from six choices to four will cause a lot of concern in parts of the sector, as will removing predicted grades. They are the two most significant issues in the 2008 proposals.
"In terms of the 2010 proposals, they are going to be problematic in terms of whether everything can be done after the results come out on August 15 - and I expect everyone will reject that idea.
"But then the issue is about holding places back - whether it is fair and whether it runs against what universities are trying to do with widening participation.
"However, Exeter is willing to discuss anything that will improve an already good system."
Another vice-chancellor, who asked not to be named, said: "I think reservations are widely shared by the selecting universities. The time to build up a relationship with applicants is something that selecting universities would not readily sacrifice. You will still find a lot of support for the use of predicted grades, despite what the Government has said.
"However, there is an appetite within the sector to look at how the admissions system can be improved, but looking for incremental rather than dramatic change."
HOW THE 2008 SYSTEM WOULD WORK
- Candidates apply to four rather than six institutions.
- Rather than predicted grades, universities would be given more information about a candidate's performance at AS level as well as unit marks for A2 (the second year of A-level study)
- The first-come-first served clearing system would be changed.
Clearing would run in three rounds, with universities allocating places after weighing up the merits of all applications against each other.
Unsuccessful applicants in clearing round one, would enter round two and so on until all places were filled
The options for 2010:
- A full PQA system, where all candidates would apply after A-level results are published
- Alternatively, universities could hold back up to 15 per cent of places for those who getbetter-than-expected grades