University staff could be vetted by the Criminal Records Bureau if proposed reforms of the school-exam system lead to more under-18s applying to higher education, it emerged this week.
The Tomlinson review of 14-to-19 education calls for GCSEs, A levels and vocational qualifications to be absorbed into a four-level diploma over the next decade.
As revealed in The Times Higher last week, it also proposes replacing A-to-E grades at A level with a "six or seven-point scale" to identify the brightest students.
Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools who led the review, predicted that teaching by age could be replaced by "teaching in stages".
The move could lead to pupils sitting exams and applying to university earlier.
Jane Nelson, chair of the University Admissions Practitioners Group, said:
"If we have students who are under 18, there is a significant difference in our legal responsibilities towards them, because we would have all of the duty of care responsibilities and the requirement to have all staff checked by the Criminal Records Bureau."
Jane Minto, director of the Oxford University Admissions Office, said that universities with little experience of admitting under-18s would need to take steps to ensure they were able to "provide for younger students' safety and wellbeing".
The 14-19 working group is to gauge how many pupils might sit exams early.
David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of East Anglia University and member of the 14-19 working group, said that universities were likely to encourage younger applicants to do further diploma work instead. I think universities, on balance, would want to encourage that rather than a headlong rush into higher education at the earliest possible age."
Universities UK said that applications from under-18s were relatively rare and that admissions tutors would have to consider whether applicants were mature enough to join "communities of adults engaged in scholarship".
The Department for Education and Skills said that universities already had experience of working with under-18s through outreach work and that any staff involved would be have already been background checked.
But a spokesman conceded that the scope of checks would be widened if under-18s were a permanent presence on a campus.
He also confirmed that younger students would be eligible for the full grant and loan support.
The Home Office is reviewing vetting and the DFES is to alert them to the implications of the Tomlinson report.
- A four-tier diploma split into entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced levels to replace GCSEs, vocational qualifications and A levels
- Students should undertake a core-skills course in numeracy, communication and information technology
- A single piece of coursework should test students' independent learning and research skills
- Students to take exams when they are able
- Grading should change to distinguish between the brightest students
- Universities would have access to a formal "transcript" of a student's performance.
- GCSEs are failing to inspire teenagers to study maths at university, ministers will be warned next week.
Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary University, London, will publish his report on mathematics for 14-to-19-year-olds next week.
It is expected to recommend that the GCSE maths curriculum be replaced by a system that would see brighter students take a more academic course while their peers take a more practical course.