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Thursday, August 20, 1998 Published at 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK


Scramble for university places

The annual rush for university places has begun

Support is growing for a change in the university application system to end the frantic scramble for places when the A level results are released.

The annual clearing exercise - designed to match students with lower-than-expected grades with spare university places - began shortly after this year's record results were released.

The BBC's Rachel Ellison reports as pupils get their results
Students sat almost 800,000 A levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1998, with 87.8% of them attracting A to E grades, a slight increase on last year's figure of 87.6%.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service administers the clearing service, which will find places on higher education courses for thousands of students over the next few days.

Its Chief Executive, Tony Higgins, believes there should be a move to a system under which students would not apply to university until they had received their results.

"Students would be that little bit older than they are now when they applied, and therefore they would be more sure of what it is they want to do in university or college," he told BBC News.

"They would be more aware of their academic ability ... and of course they would be applying on the basis of more up-to-date information."

[ image: David Blunkett: supports change]
David Blunkett: supports change
The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, also supports a move to a system under which students applied for places on the basis of their actual - rather than predicted - grades.

Universities will publish their recommendations on the way forward this autumn.

This year's A level results, although the highest ever, have produced the smallest rise for more than a decade. However, last year's standstill in the proportion receiving the top A grades was not repeated - it went up by 0.6 percentage points to 16.8% of all entries.

The government welcomed the figures and denied accusations that exam standards are falling.

Mr Blunkett said successful students and their teachers should be congratulated.

"I am confident that these results reflect real achievement," he said.

"The exhaustive study undertaken by the Office for Standards in Education and others in 1996 found no evidence that standards had fallen over time.

David Blunkett: "These results are earned"
"These results should be compared with equivalent examinations such as the Baccalaureat in France and the Abitur in Germany, where improvements in attainment are not assumed to be a sign of reduced standards."

The appointment by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority of a new panel of independent subject experts would ensure rigour was maintained in the future, he added.

A Conservative education spokesman, Damian Green, warned that the government's education reforms - including the abolition of grant maintained school status - placed future A level success at risk.

The Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, Phil Willis, congratulated students and teachers on the A level results, but added that government plans to charge university tuition fees threatened to undermine their good work.

"The reward for those students wishing to go to university will be an entry fee of £1,000 per year and residual debts of over £12,000, and for their teachers a two-stage pay award - all courtesy of a New Labour government.

"Unless they begin to reward excellence in our schools and increase incentives to stay in full-time education, Britain's tradition of academic success may well be undermined."

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