Under plans outlined today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, prospective students would apply after receiving their A-level results from 2016, rather than on the basis of their predicted grades.
Students would sit their exams 15 days earlier in mid-May under the new system and receive their results in mid-July when the main applications window would open.
Armed with their results, individuals could then apply to up to two institutions, instead of five at present.
Those not selected for a place could then apply for a second round of applications – similar to clearing – which would run from July to September.
The academic term would begin in early October.
David Eastwood, chair of Ucas’ board and vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, said changes to the higher education landscape meant a review was “timely”.
But Ucas would not force any changes on the sector unless there was agreement, he added.
“Universities and colleges are responsible for their own admissions – we are clear as a board that it is ultimately for those within the sector to determine how admissions should operate in the future.
“In addition, we appreciate that any changes to examination timetables would require agreement from the four UK administrations.”
He said the review launched today offered a range of proposals designed to “reposition and refine” the admissions system.
“The board is not committed to any one solution, but we are committed to continuing to provide an outstanding admissions service that is transparent, fair, and meets the needs of applicants and our member institutions,” Professor Eastwood added.
The consultation, which is the first fundamental review of Ucas processes since the body was created in 1961, will be led by Rama Thirunamachandran, deputy vice-chancellor of Keele University.
Benefits of the proposed system would include an end to the last-minute scramble for places in clearing, while students would have an extra six months to research institutions before applying.
The changes could also attract more students from poorer families, the consultation paper contends, saying many bright students may be more inclined to apply to top universities with good results in their pocket, rather than merely on predicted grades.
Reducing the number of initial choices from five to two would also cut the number of applications processed from 2.7 million to 1.2 million, which would eliminate about 3.2 million transactions between Ucas and institutions.
Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of University of Bristol, welcomed the review.
“There may well be a case for making the applications system more efficient and user-friendly for applicants, and it is something that universities will want to look at very closely,” he said.
“In terms of the proposal to move to a post-results admissions system, there will need to be full consultation on this with all parties, including universities, schools, colleges and applicants.
“The key priority must be to ensure that any changes genuinely benefit applicants, and also that they do not hinder widening participation or fair access for students from lower income and other under-represented groups.”
In addition to the online consultation, Ucas will be holding a number of supporting events, with details to be published on its website.
The consultation process will run until 20 January 2012, with a report of the findings and proposed next steps to be published in March.