Page last updated at 17:27 GMT, Monday, 28 July 2008 18:27 UK

'Lack of will' on fair admissions

University entrance
The university admissions timetable has so far resisted promises of change

There has been "a complete lack of political will" over plans to make UK university admissions fairer, says a teachers' leader.

Four years ago an official report found that it would be fairer for pupils to have their A-level and other results before making university applications.

"Predicted exam grades are notoriously unreliable," said the ATL education union general secretary, Mary Bousted.

Ministers backed calls for change - but so far they have not been implemented.

Despite the support in principle of universities, schools, government and opposition parties there is still no fixed schedule for changing the admissions timetable, with a further review planned for two years' time.

'Palpably failing'

With this year's A-level students soon to receive their results, Ms Bousted has highlighted that the system identified as "unfair" by ministers is still in place.

"A-level grades are already available online so the technology is in place to move to post-grade applications with a minimal amount of tweaking.

"It would give colleges and universities reliable information on which to base their offers and students a more realistic basis on which to make their choices."

But she rejected calls from Cambridge University for schools to shift the A-level timetable back to Easter.

Cambridge's director of admissions, Geoff Parks, says the current system of applying before A-level results are issued is "palpably failing" and there is a "very large tranche of students for whom the system does not work".

In particular, he says those from less well-off backgrounds are disadvantaged by the process of applying without knowing exam results - and that this hampers universities' efforts to widen participation.

Mr Parks wants A-levels to be completed by Easter, with the summer term being used for a much more focused and better-researched approach to applying for university.

'Grasp the nettle'

But he says there are practical barriers to universities shifting to a later starting date - the biggest single obstacle being the need to meet the requirements of overseas students.

Mr Parks also recognises the unsatisfactory nature of the apparent inability for the system to change - even though all sides accept the benefit.

"We could have had the same conversation five years ago ... someone needs to grasp the nettle," said Mr Parks.

But at the present rate of progress, he suggests there is no guarantee that the system will have been changed by a suggested date of 2012.

There has been a long running story of reports and plans for such a system.

In 2002, educationist Mike Tomlinson called on ministers to investigate ways to introduce a "post-qualification application" system as part of a review of A-levels - with ministers giving their support in 2003.

In 2004, a government-commissioned report by Steven Schwartz argued strongly that students needed to have A-level results before applying to university.


Prof Schwartz highlighted the unreliability of predicted grades and said that thousands of pupils were missing out on places as a result.

Defending the introduction of tuition fees as part of widening access to higher education, the government once again committed its support for changing the admissions timetable.

Charles Clarke, then education secretary, said that a post-qualifications admission system would be "fairer and more transparent".

But while the universities did get their hike in tuition fees, with the government facing down a backbench rebellion in 2004, there was no such change in the admissions system.

In 2005, the education department's director general, Sir Alan Wilson, set out how a post-qualification application system could be introduced and Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell warned of the need to stop the "inherent unfairness" of the current system.

By 2006, the government expressed its "very strong support in principle" for post-qualification applications. But it was going to hand over the process to a "delivery partnership" led by the higher education sector.

Two years later, there are adjustments in the pipeline - applicants who achieve higher than expected grades will be able to re-consider their bids - but plans for a more substantial shift remain uncertain.

Such decisions will be considered in another two years' time, beyond the next general election, when another review on implementation is held in 2010-11.

Mr Rammell, who remains as higher education minister, re-stated his support.

I do believe a system of post qualification application to university would be an improvement on the current system where students are admitted based on predictive grades.

As part of the PQA reform process a number of changes have already been agreed and next year for the first time students will be able to apply for an alternative place if they do better than their original offer.

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