By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Online education staff
Students should be able to make their university choices after their A-level results, a report from a government task-force has recommended.
Admissions processes should be much more open, says report
Education Secretary Charles Clarke has backed the proposals, from a committee led by Professor Steven Schwartz, as "fairer and more transparent".
Secondary Heads Association leader John Dunford said post-result applications could be implemented by 2007.
He said it would be fairer for students who score higher results than expected.
The review of the university admissions system, which was asked to find ways to make the process fairer, said there needed to be much more openness and information for students.
MAKING UNIVERSITY ADMISSIONS FAIRER
Apply after A-level results
Universities should make clear the grades needed
Admissions criteria should be published
Create a centre of expertise on admissions
Single national SAT-type test, rather than individual university tests
Re-design application forms
Professor Schwartz said that, at present, it was "difficult for students to know why their applications had been accepted or, more importantly, why they had not been accepted".
Too many decisions were made on unreliable information, such as schools' forecasts of A-level grades or "impressionistic" interviews, he said.
And he called for a more professional and transparent approach to handling applications, to remove the "suspicion" over how decisions were reached.
The shadow education secretary, Tim Collins, said the proposal for post-qualification applications was "sensible in principle but will need detailed work in practice".
"Today's report must not, however, be used to further the wider social engineering agenda of a government which clearly does not believe that access to higher education should be determined solely by academic merit."
The report recommends that there should be a "post-qualification applications" system, in which pupils' applications would not be completed until after they had received their A-level results.
This would mean maintaining the current process of applications and interviews, but with a clearing-style option for changes to university choices after results are received.
At present, applications use predicted A-level grades - and about half of these predictions are later proved to be wrong, said Professor Schwartz, who is vice-chancellor of Brunel University.
"We have come to the conclusion that we really do have to seriously move to a post-qualification admissions system because the current one is just not fair," he said.
In particular, the current system works against pupils who are not confident about applying and those who score higher grades than predicted, said Professor Schwartz.
Professor Schwartz says admissions should be handled more professionally
Dr Dunford said that as a head teacher he had seen many pupils restricted by choices made before they received their results.
He said there was scope for exams and results to be moved to earlier in the summer and university terms to be pushed back later, to make the time necessary for such a post-qualification admissions system.
The admissions review followed calls from the government for a higher education system that drew students from a wider range of social backgrounds.
This has seen the report treading the tight-rope between responding to calls for a more socially-inclusive system and accusations that it will be promoting "positive discrimination".
Professor Schwartz said that although no individuals should be discriminated against because of a more affluent background, or on grounds of race, research showed "compelling educational" benefits from having a more diverse student body.
Where there were applicants of similar ability, he said that universities might prefer students who would add to that diversity.
But at the same time, he said, "it's not the task of universities to compensate for social disadvantage".
Dr Dunford also argued that a "more level playing field will be created if the background of applicants is taken into account by universities when making offers of places".
The shift to applications being made after pupils had their results was endorsed by the education secretary, who announced the setting up of an implementation body to be led by Sir Alan Wilson, director general for higher education and former Leeds University vice-chancellor.
"It must be fairer and more transparent for students to know their final results before making important choices about where and what to study, and this also must aid decision-making by universities," said Mr Clarke.
The timetable for introducing changes has not been established, but they are not imminent.
There are also questions about whether the new implementation group will have "teeth" to impose its recommendations.
The government says it will review progress in three years.
But changes could also be coupled to the overhaul of the secondary school curriculum in England being carried out by Mike Tomlinson.
The Welsh Assembly Education Minister, Jane Davidson, said she also supported the proposal and would consider the implications, given its UK-wide impact.
"It is a sensible proposition provided a workable model can be found," she said.
Another proposal to help universities distinguish between students with similar grades has been for a national SAT-type test, assessing potential.
The Schwartz report suggests that such a national test could be established within the new curriculum.
Universities UK, representing higher education chiefs, broadly welcomed the proposals, saying they provided a "solid foundation for institutions looking to enhance good practice in their admissions policies and procedures".
But a group representing admissions tutors was sceptical.
And the National Union of Students said the report was a missed opportunity to improve access and instead posed further hurdles for those wanting to pursue higher education.