Vice-chancellors are at loggerheads over government proposals to reform the university admissions system, it emerged this week.
Members of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities (CMU) have condemned what they see as an attempt by heads of old universities and civil servants to preserve "elitist" elements of the current admissions process, rather than moving swiftly to a "full-blown" system of post-qualification applications.
Meanwhile, the Russell Group and the 1994 Group of vice-chancellors have questioned the need for radical changes, arguing for relatively minor modifications to the present system, which would leave A-level grade predictions and conditional offers in place.
The conflict is likely to prove difficult to resolve for Universities UK, which has declined to comment as it prepares its own submission to a government consultation paper, for which the deadline for responses is next Wednesday.
The Government's proposals offer two options for a PQA system that would be introduced from 2008.
The first would bring in three time-limited application rounds that would follow A-level results, while the second would involve a two-phase process that would require universities to reserve about 15 per cent of places until exam results had been published.
The CMU, which has yet to make a formal response to the consultation, this week told The Times Higher that it was fundamentally opposed both to the Government's and to the Russell Group and the 1994 Group's suggestions.
Pam Tatlow, its chief executive, said that both sets of proposals amounted to "moving a small number of students around the system" rather than widening access to higher education.
"The proposals reflect the interests of a small group of elitist institutions, and they rely on assumptions about a hierarchy of institutions and gearing the whole system to 18-year-old applicants.
"The reality is that what is on the table does not actually take PQA very far forward," she said.
A joint response paper from the Russell and 1994 groups argues that the scale of the problem that PQA is meant to resolve is "modest", and that radical reforms are therefore not required.
The groups' members are calling for a five-day "post-qualification adjustment" period before clearing, to allow applicants who have exceeded expected grades to seek to "trade up" for places at institutions with higher entrance requirements.
The Department for Education and Skills said this week that it was expecting to respond to the consultation submissions by spring.
The issues are to be considered at a Higher Education Policy Institute conference, supported by The Times Higher , that will be held in London on December 7.
WHAT THE VICE-CHANCELLORS' GROUPS SAY
Russell and 1994 Groups
- In favour of modest changes to the system, rather than the Government's current proposals
- Improve the quality of information to prospective students
- Reduce the number of applications through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service from six to four
- Introduce a "Ucasextra" phase, allowing applicants without an offer to make rolling applications, one or two at a time
- Maintain an earlier deadline of October 15 for applications to Oxbridge and medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses
- Introduce a five-day "post-qualification adjustment" period, during which candidates who exceed predicted grades can make a fresh application while holding a conditional place
- Schools and colleges should continue to make A-level predictions
- Once a new system has been established, the number of offers applicants are allowed to hold would be reduced to one
- System should be reviewed again after 2010.
Campaigning for mainstream universities
- CMU vice-chancellors reject the government proposals on the grounds that they represent a delayed and watered-down version of PQA based on the current system
- They want instead a "full-blown" system of PQA, in which all universities would consider applications after A-level results by the same deadline
- Students could still make expressions of interest and take part in interviews and open days in advance of results day
- All institutions would be expected to take into accountstudents' prior achievements, as well as a broad range of qualifications, as well as the results of A levels.