A two-tier system that first warns universities of student numbers before pupils apply post A-level results is the most efficient way forward, says report
Sixthformers should be allowed to "register interest" in two universities just before their A-level exams and finalise their choice after their results rather than apply with predicted grades, ministers will be told next month.
A special panel convened by the Secondary Heads' Association is poised to recommend the introduction of a new, two-stage system of post-qualification applications, based on A-level results, for the 2008 intake.
Echoing the findings of the Schwartz inquiry into fair admissions, the SHA panel has concluded that the system of using predicted grades to offer candidates places is "educationally unsound, inequitable and inefficient".
Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service and a SHA panel member, recently returned from a fact-finding trip to Australia, where forms of PQA are in use.
The SHA report will draw on the Australian system in recommending that candidates "register" their preliminary choice of two universities around April 30 to give institutions an indication of likely student numbers.
Once they had their A-level results, candidates would make two choices and then wait to see if they received an offer.
Candidates who failed to receive an offer from their first choice would have a short time to make a further choice based on an online Ucas course vacancy list.
The SHA report, expected to be published on November 8, follows Steven Schwartz's inquiry into fair admissions.
Professor Schwartz said that under the current system the predicted grades of half of all candidates were wrong and that sixth-formers from poor backgrounds may underestimate their results.
Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, said: "I'm delighted the SHA is coming forward with constructive proposals about how to achieve PQA. We'll look closely at their proposals.
"I've asked Sir Alan Wilson (the Government's director-general of higher education) to develop a group that will implement this. (He) is talking to the SHA and other head-teacher organisations."
The SHA's report will point out that the success of the scheme will rely on technology to speed up the transfer of information between candidates, Ucas and universities. Ucas has already announced that it plans to end paper applications and introduce a fully online service by 2006.
John Tredwell, chairman of the SHA commission and principal of Worcester Sixth Form College, said: "We must adopt a PQA system because students are being asked to choose their higher education courses and institutions too early. The problems can be overcome. There also seems to be a lot of convergence at the moment: electronic applications from 2006, Tomlinson and plans to cut the exam burden, and Schwartz and fair admissions. So the time is right."
At the time his report was published, Professor Schwartz also endorsed the idea of a "two-step" university process.
And, in a recent interview with The Times Higher , Sir Alan described PQA as an "idea whose time has come". He expected to make recommendations about how it could work "within months rather than weeks".
He said: "I think that it's important in terms of both fairness and efficiency. If you are in a position where 50 per cent of your predicted results are wrong and you can change it to applying after the results have come out, that has to be a step forwards."