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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 November 2006, 02:22 GMT
Stalling on university admissions
By Mike Baker
Education correspondent, BBC News

Mike Baker
Will the government's promised reform of the university admissions process ever actually happen?

Last May, after much consultation, the government said it wanted to move to a system whereby students applied after they have received their exam grades, rather than on the basis of predicted grades as now.

Ministers set a timetable of interim changes by 2008 and the introduction of a full Post Qualifications Applications system (PQA) by 2012.

But already the expectations of substantial change are being massaged down by some of the key players in the reform process.

Back in May, the government decided the best way forward was to make the higher education sector itself responsible for implementing change. In this, they were acknowledging the reality that universities are independent and enforcing change is not really an option.

There is no doubt that PQA is proving problematic

So the baton was passed to a "delivery partnership" representing universities and other bodies involved in university entrance.

It has now formed a steering group, which is chaired by Sir Graeme Davies, vice-chancellor of the University of London.

At a London conference this week, Sir Graeme surprised supporters of PQA by saying - in what he stressed was a "personal view" - that "the prospect of a full-blooded, 100% PQA system is unlikely".

This was honest of him and there is no doubt that PQA is proving problematic. Despite strong support for the principle of post-results applications, the practice has proved divisive.

Not for the first time, universities, colleges and schools cannot agree on the best way forward.

At the same conference, the comments of the head of the universities admissions service, Ucas, proved instructive.

Anthony McLaran said: "We have been bedevilled by excessive concentration on those three initials, PQA, in a way that does not do justice to the complexities of what we are trying to do.

"If we focus only on PQA we will get polarisation and over-simplification."

It seems we - and the government - are being prepared for a distinct lowering of expectations over PQA.

Resentment

Meanwhile there are signs of resentment from state schools, colleges and widening participation groups - which tend to favour PQA - that their voices are not sufficiently represented on the delivery partnership.

The latter has just held its first meeting and produced its first progress report. The composition of its steering group has angered many because of the dominance of universities.

Its 23 named members include just one representative of further education colleges and just three from schools. Some are shocked that two of these three schools are private, selective schools.

students
Current university admissions are based on predicted grades

Groups committed to broadening university participation, such as Action on Access, are not represented.

So where is the delivery partnership heading? Its just-published first report is very cautious.

It says the system will continue to be based on the grade predictions supplied by schools and colleges until 2010 when it promises to do no more than review the situation.

It is also pretty cautious on the half-way house option that would allow students who get higher grades than expected to make new applications without jeopardising the conditional offers they already hold.

It promises to present a paper in June 2007 for how this might work but makes no commitment as to when it might begin.

Indeed it warns that the changes to the Ucas processes may require a "long-lead time for implementation".

The one firm change, for implementation by 2008, is for A-level results to come out at least one week earlier than now. This in itself would make little difference, although it is a necessary pre-condition to other changes leading towards PQA.

So, despite all the pressure for change, and the clear direction indicated by the government, there is relatively little hope of an early end to a system of university admissions based on predicted grades, 55% of which prove to be at least slightly inaccurate.

The Higher Education Minister, Bill Rammell, has asked to attend the delivery partnerships' meeting early next year.

The question is: Does he have the political will, and clout, to get them back on track for PQA?

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