Vice-chancellors have postponed a debate on plans for a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system after learning that the Tomlinson inquiry into A levels is likely to recommend a rival scheme, based on a January start to the academic year.
Universities UK had planned to consult on the feasibility of taking applications after the publication of A-level results if exams were moved forward with the adoption of a six-term school year. But the exercise was put on ice pending the outcome of the inquiry, which is due to report this month.
In an interview on his proposals, Mike Tomlinson said: "If term started in January, there's a period around which students could do Voluntary Service Overseas or some kind of community or charity work. It could be a very, very rich way forward for the student and for everyone else."
The scheme was supported by the heads of schools and colleges who appeared before the Commons education select committee on Wednesday. Edward Gould, master of Marlborough College, represented the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference at the meeting. He said: "It would be possible for the government, if it was so minded, to alter the university year to run from January and for the period in the autumn to be used for the university application process."
Mr Gould was supported by Neil Hopkins, principal of Peter Symonds College, who represented the Association of Colleges, and Tony Neal, headmaster of De Ashton School, who represented the Secondary Heads Association.
But UUK - in its evidence to the Tomlinson inquiry, submitted jointly with the Standing Conference of Principals and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service - stated that its members had indicated that a change to the academic year could cause problems.
UUK chief executive Baroness Warwick said: "A January start would affect students who have no financial support covering the period from the summer when examinations end until January. This could have negative consequences for attracting students from lower socioeconomic groups into higher education."
UUK also expressed concern that the year would not match university years overseas, creating problems for international and exchange students, or the school year, creating problems for students who are parents.
Previous attempts to introduce a PQA system foundered because neither schools nor universities were prepared to change the structure of their academic years. But the prospect of a six-term school year, with earlier public exams, raised hopes that the deadlock would be broken.
Schools in Derbyshire will move to a six-term year from September 2004, while public consultation in Kent showed 75 per cent support for the switch.
The decision was welcomed by Baroness Warwick, who said: "Universities UK recognises the potential advantages in principle of a system of post-qualification applications to higher education. However, any changes would require careful consideration.
"Provisos include the need to ensure that the time available for a PQA process were sufficient to accommodate interviews essential for certain courses. There needs to be enough time built in for A-level results and to deal with appeals."