Vice chancellors have put the brakes on plans for a post-qualifications admissions system that could have been in place by 1997.
The steering group charged by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals with reviewing admissions procedures has been asked to consider a broader range of options than just a post-qualifications system.
The feasibility study into a system that would allow students to apply after they know their A-level results will still go ahead under Norman Gowar, principal of Royal Holloway, University of London. Professor Gowar described plans for a 1997 start as "over ambitious".
Calls at a CVCP meeting last Friday for the feasibility study to be scrapped altogether were vetoed on the grounds that it would represent "a public relations disaster" with the many outside bodies calling for a new system.
The move will alarm schools, which are unanimous in their demand for a post-qualifications system. John Tredwell, principal of Worcester Sixth Form College and a member of the steering group, said: "If we are being asked to go back to a review of the present system that is a very disappointing and a backward step. We all know the problems of the present system and the steering group was unanimous in wanting to explore a post-qualifications system."
Derek Roberts, provost of University College, London, accused the steering group of "unprofessional behaviour". He argued that the group, chaired by Sir Frederick Crawford, vice chancellor of Aston University, should have considered the strengths and weaknesses of the present system before deciding to look at the feasibility of a post-qualifications alternative.
Pat Houghton, admissions secretary at Cambridge University, described plans for a post-results system as "absolutely mad". She said that it was an attempt to cram nine months' work into two weeks and that schools would change their tune once they realised how much work it would involve in the summer holidays. "If interviews were to take place before results were out, then why not keep the present system?" she asked.
Mr Tredwell responded: "We are aware that schools will have to do a lot more work in the summer - but in the interests of the students this has got to happen. At the moment students are having to make decisions far too early on in their A-level studies."
Mrs Houghton said that Cambridge had no plans to reintroduce its entrance exam should a post-qualifications system become a reality: "We are wedded to judging people on their A levels."
David Melville, vice chancellor of Middlesex University, said: "Ideally a post-qualifications system is by far the better arrangement, but there are lots of problems when it comes to implementing it. The general view at the committee meeting was that it was unlikely that such a system could be made to work, and that it would have to be augmented by other systems."