A national test to identify the best students is likely to be backed by the Schwartz review of university admissions when it publishes its recommendations next month.
The review committee, headed by Steven Schwartz, vice-chancellor of Brunel University, wants to end the practice of extra tests being introduced by individual universities and colleges to discriminate between students predicted excellent A-level results.
Professor Schwartz said: "Some of these examinations are neither reliable nor valid. Even those that are reliable and valid have a cost - for travel to the test site and sometimes payment for the test itself. To the extent that this keeps students from low-income backgrounds from applying, such expense can be a barrier to participation.
"If universities are going to use examinations, then it is preferable to have one well-constructed national examination rather than to make students pay travel costs and fees to take many different tests."
Studies have shown that students from state schools with lower university entry grades do as well in higher education as students from independent schools with higher entry grades. But this finding does not hold true for students with the very best grades.
In the past few years, various tests to assess these students' aptitude for higher education or their critical-thinking skills have emerged. Some 1,550 candidates for places at 23 Cambridge colleges this year sat a thinking skills assessment devised by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate. The body also runs the BioMedical Admissions Test used to assess applicants to Oxford and Cambridge universities and University College London.
Law schools at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Birmingham and Nottingham universities, plus UCL and King's College London, are in the early stages of developing their own admissions tests. These would be replaced with a single national test under the Schwartz proposals.
Professor Schwartz was due to outline his ideas in a lecture sponsored by the OCR exam board at the Royal Society of the Arts as The Times Higher went to press.
The Sutton Trust has said it plans to conduct trials of American-style SATs, if the final report from the Schwartz group approves their introduction. But it is clarifying whether this is something the state should fund.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England is also planning to assess the effectiveness of SATs by combining test scores with its administrative data and tracking the students through to graduation.
Publication of the Schwartz group's recommendations has been delayed by a month while legal advice is taken on some of the recommendations.
Positive discrimination in favour of certain groups is likely to be ruled out as illegal, but certain individuals, judged on a case-by-case basis, could still be made lower entry offers than others.
The report is expected on April 5.
HOW ACCESS WORKS IN THE US
US high school students will sit a new SAT in spring 2005, building on the tests that have been a mainstay for university admissions for decades.
Administered by the College Board, a non-profit membership association founded in 1900, the SAT is taken by those in their final years at high school.
It is a reasoning test in two parts. SAT 1 is a three-hour test that measures verbal and mathematical reasoning skills.
SAT II is a one-hour, mostly multiple-choice, test measuring how much students know about a particular academic subject and how they can apply that knowledge. There are 22 subject tests.
The new SAT also has a third component - a student essay.
Most university-based affirmative-action programmes have been aimed to encourage ethnic groups into academic programmes, often leading to professions in which they are historically underrepresented, such as law.
These programmes are unpopular with displaced white applicants and rightwing administrations, but last year's Supreme Court decision in the case of Michigan University allowed them to continue.
There are Numerous schemes, of which the most significant is the $298 million (£164 million) Gear Up programme of discretionary grants designed to increase the proportion of low-income students going on to post-secondary education.