University admissions procedures could be radically restructured within four years, spelling the end of the annual clearing scramble.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals is to reopen consultation on the introduction of a post-qualification application system in the autumn. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service says it could have a PQA system up and running by 2004.
The move comes as a report, published today by the Local Government Association, calls for a restructured school year. Local authorities, represented by the LGA, and individual schools are responsible for the structure of term-time and holidays.
The LGA report, produced by the Independent Commission on the School Year, recommends a six-term school year to replace the current three terms. Exams, such as A levels, would be taken in April (term five) with results out in July (term six), a month before they are now. Universities would then have nearly three months in which to fill places, knowing exactly what grades candidates are offering.
Tony Bruce, CVCP policy director, said: "All other things being equal, it brings us a step closer to a PQA system. One of the major problems when we looked at this last time was a lack of time between A-level results and the start of the academic year. There is a good chance that with another month (between the two) we could probably crack it."
Tony Higgins, chief executive of Ucas, first advocated a PQA system in 1993. Mr Higgins said: "Under a six-term school year we could probably do a PQA system. It would take quite a long time to plan and in computer terms ... perhaps four years to set up."
A PQA system would do away with the need for applications to be made by the December of the year prior to entry. Universities would no longer have to offer places to candidates on the condition they achieve the required grades.
Instead applications for university entry in September and October would be made during preceding weeks over the summer, after candidates have received their results in July. All offers would be unconditional. Clearing would become all but obsolete.
Mr Higgins said that the applications process itself would probably have to be reformed. Applicants could list three universities in order of preference, rather than the present six. The first-choice institution would be passed the applicant's grades and could decide immediately whether to offer a place. Possible changes could mean that the second and third-choice institutions would not be told higher preferences.
A PQA system could help widen access to university. Up to 34,000 people a year do not apply for university even though they gain the necessary grades. Many come from backgrounds with little or no academic tradition.
The LGA report says: "Because students currently have to make their applications before they know their results, they can be unduly influenced ... by others, whether parents, their teachers or the universities and colleges."
But the LGA proposals may prove to be stillborn if the National Union of Teachers, which fears losing the long summer holiday, opposes them. And there may yet be opposition from university staff whose working patterns may have to change to accommodate a PQA system. A spokesman for the Association of University Teachers said that the union would be unable to comment fully until details were known.
Despite this, Chris Price, chairman of the independent commission, said he was confident that the LGA proposals would receive widespread support. He said that consultation on the proposals would last a year.