Secondary schools have been given the green light to deliver degree modules to pupils in a move that will give university admissions staff a better idea of applicants' abilities.
Legislative changes promise to blur the boundary between secondary and tertiary education by allowing pupils to substitute degree modules for AS qualifications and possibly A levels.
Pupils would be assessed and fully accredited for degree work undertaken at school. The work would count towards their final degree mark where appropriate.
School-leavers would know how well they had done in their higher education module before applying to university.
This could tell an admissions officer more about an applicant's suitability for a degree course than predicted A-level results.
David Law, registrar at Warwick University and chairman of the Admissions Practitioners' Group, gave the changes a cautious welcome.
He said that degree modules would work best delivered in a "fixed link", where pupils applied for places at those institutions that had delivered the modules they studied at school.
But he added: "I think a problem will be portability. It is difficult to see it having obvious relevance if an applicant wanted to move to another higher education institution. There is an issue about confidence in new qualifications."
Ofsted, the schools inspection service, in conjunction with higher education's quality watchdog, the Quality Assurance Agency, will develop specific inspection guidance for the school modules.
It is likely that much of the degree-level work would be delivered by trained teachers. But pupils will also have access to academics and facilities at partner universities, with the possibility that lecturers could be seen more frequently in classrooms.
Mike Goodwin, a senior marketing development officer at Wolverhampton University with responsibility for school liaisons, said his institution was working with neighbouring education authorities to deliver two modules in art and design in schools from this autumn.
These will be delivered on campus by university staff.
Mr Goodwin said: "I think we are at the starting point and that over time we will see different models of delivery and practice emerging."
Anne Burrill, Portsmouth University's deputy director of marketing specialising in school liaisons, said: "The secret is introducing university modules quite early on so that young people will grow up through the school system realising that their local higher education institution is not a frightening place."
Schools are allowed to offer higher education thanks to changes introduced by the 2005 Education Act. State schools - though not sixth-form colleges, further education colleges or fee-paying schools - had previously been prevented from teaching higher education because it conflicted with the national curriculum.
There was also no dedicated pot of money for such work. But Jacqui Smith, the Schools Minister, has written to Christopher Banks, chairman of the Learning and Skills Council, with guidance on how the council should fund higher education in schools.
Ms Smith said that there would be no extra money from the Government but that schools could divert existing money from, for example, providing an AS level (about £700) to providing a higher education module.
The LSC said that typically, but not exclusively, pupils who chose to do a degree course while at school would do so through the Open University's Young Applicants in Schools Scheme (Yass).
Paul Kelly, head teacher at Whitley Bay's Monkseaton Community High School, which pioneered the Yass scheme with the OU in 1996, said: "There is a great chasm between the two institutions of school and university, but if we are working towards a society where most people go to university, then this barrier should not be there."
Liz Manning, assistant director for the Open University in the North, which oversees the Yass project, said: "If this works out, it will be brilliant for us because at present we rely on the schools to find funding for the courses."