Allowing students to apply for a university place after receiving their A-level results could pose major practical problems for admissions tutors and backfire on the most disadvantaged applicants, one of the Government's senior education mandarins has been warned.
The Times Higher has learnt that fresh doubts have emerged within Whitehall about the idea of introducing a post-qualification applications system rather than allowing universities to continue to offer places on the basis of predicted grades.
Sceptics in a working group chaired by Sir Alan Wilson, the Government's director-general of higher education, have questioned the need to change the system and underlined the practical obstacles that universities and exam boards would face.
In particular, concerns have been raised about a plan tabled by the Secondary Heads Association, which proposes allowing students to register interest in two institutions in the spring before taking their A levels, then to make their final applications after they have received their exam results.
It is understood that some members of the Whitehall working group raised doubts about moving the start date of the academic year and questioned whether A-level exam results could be delivered two weeks earlier, as the SHA proposes.
The concerns are shared by Ivor Crewe, the president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of Essex University.
He told The Times Higher that if admissions staff were not given sufficient time to assess the merits of each application, those with non-traditional qualifications could suffer.
Professor Crewe said that vice-chancellors supported a PQA system in principle, provided that universities and colleges were given enough time to assess applications and that there was no significant delay to the start of the academic year.
He said: "The case for (a PQA system) rests on its contribution to fair admissions and wider access, and here the devil is in the detail - in the practicalities and specific outcomes of actual implementation.
"Whichever post-qualification admissions system is adopted, it will need to recognise the wide range of application routes and timescales and must not inadvertently disenfranchise those who come through with other qualifications or already have the necessary qualifications and could therefore apply at any time.
"It is therefore vital that the adopted model is tailored to a much more broad-based category of non-traditional entrants of the kind that an institution may be attempting to attract through their widening participation strategies and access agreement commitments.
"Whatever system is adopted must ensure that widening participation is not sacrificed on the altar of theoretically attractive but impractical models of fairness."
But John Dunford, the SHA general secretary, said: "We've talked about this for so long - and people have accepted that there are advantages in principle - that it is time for people to accept that a workable system can be devised."
Steven Schwartz, the vice-chancellor of Brunel University, whose report last year on fair admission to higher education recommended moving to a PQA system, added that perhaps only 15 per cent of applicants would seek to change their university preference after receiving their A-level grades.
"Experts have been advocating PQA for many years, and we've had at least three inquiries that I can think of that have recommended it as a fairer system," Professor Schwartz said.
"What we are coming down to saying is that we know it's the fairer thing to do, we know it's the right thing to do, but we aren't going to do it because it might inconvenience us.
"If adjustments have to be made to do the right thing, you would think that people would want to do that. It's just too bad if people want to put administrative convenience ahead of justice."