Universities are to get extra information about applicants' A-level performance to help admissions staff choose between the growing numbers of candidates with top grades, admissions chief Anthony McClaran said this week.
Information detailing the grades achieved in each of the six modules that determine the overall grade of each A level awarded could be available in time for 2006 entry, Mr McClaran told The Times Higher .
The proposal is due out for consultation to universities, schools and exam-awarding bodies early next month, led by the Joint Council for Qualifications in conjunction with the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Currently, Ucas supplies universities with grades secured by A-level applicants. Admissions staff have no idea unless the student tells them (and some institutions do ask) whether an applicant with two As and a B narrowly missed getting a third A or how close they came to getting three Bs.
The grades-only system is problematic because of the increasing number of applicants with three or more A grades at A level. And the problem has become so acute in some subjects that universities have introduced their own admissions tests for law and medicine.
Mr McClaran pointed out that much of the debate over A-level standards stemmed from the late 1980s when the method of assessing and marking changed.
A-level grades had until then been determined by comparing the spread of marks from all candidates. It meant that the mark needed for an A grade could shift from year to year.
In the late 1980s this changed, and grades were awarded on the basis of achievement against a fixed marking scale. It was deemed fairer but it undermined the usefulness of the A level as a way of differentiating between candidates.
Mr McClaran, a member of the Schwartz committee on university admissions, said: "A levels have become a measure of absolute achievement as opposed to a way of referencing students' performance against their peers. And that must be a good thing.
"But it does mean that we have to revisit the initial aspect of the A level, which was to act as a differentiating tool for higher education. I believe there are ways of differentiating within the system."
Mr McClaran, 46, said that Ucas was neither for nor against universities setting up their own entry tests. But he admitted that he personally opposed increasing the testing burden on young people, citing the example of the eldest of his four children.
"He is just starting GCSEs and he is really in for it in terms of testing for the foreseeable future. We are overassessing," he said.
"If we could devise a curriculum that could deliver in terms of identifying academic potential and in terms of recording different levels of achievement, then it would be desirable to deliver that through a national examinations system rather than through university testing."
Mr McClaran is well versed in the politics and processes of admissions.
After three years of doctoral research in medieval history at York University he left, without gaining his PhD, to join Warwick University to work in the registry. He joined Ucas in 1995 and rose to become deputy to the late Tony Higgins. Mr McClaran was appointed chief executive at the start of this year.
Mr McClaran refuses to talk about the circumstances surrounding Mr Higgins'
departure as chief executive last summer.
But he denies allegations that Ucas, a charity that makes its money from fees charged to universities and their applicants, is in financial difficulties.
"We have just agreed a £3 million investment programme over the next year... there is no lack of investment and our surplus is about £1 million this year. This is not bad on a £20 million turnover," he said.
Further income will be generated as undergraduate numbers grow and Ucas branches out, providing admission services for taught masters degrees.
Switching to a fully electronic applications system ought to mean further efficiencies.