Page last updated at 01:51 GMT, Saturday, 7 March 2009

Problems in university admissions

By Mike Baker

Changes to university fees could be pushed beyond the general election

School allocations may be getting all the attention at the moment but a metaphorical bomb is quietly ticking away under this year's university admissions.

This summer sees a significant change to the process of applying to university. It is called "the adjustment period".

Despite the rather anodyne name, this is intended as a big step towards a system in which students apply to universities after they have received the results of their A-levels or equivalent qualifications.

This aim, eventually, is to replace the current system of applications based on predicted grades.

Three years ago the government said it wanted to introduce "a full post-qualifications application system by 2012". This is seen as fairer since official figures show that 55% of predicted grades are inaccurate.

Moreover, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), predicted grades are more likely to be inaccurate for students from the lowest socio-economic groups.

The reality is that there will rarely be any places left

There is also evidence that many bright students from poorer homes are put off applying to top universities like Oxford and Cambridge because they think their grades will not be good enough. By the time they receive their better-than-expected results it is too late.

So, that is why this year there is a significant change. The "adjustment period" will apply to university applicants who, in August, find they have done better than expected in their exams.

If their grades are better than required for the university offers they are holding, they will now get a further opportunity to apply elsewhere to see if they can, in effect, "upgrade".

'Speed dating'

They will have five days after the results come out to achieve this upgrade. This change means, in theory, an intense period of "speed dating" between top universities and those students who have exceeded exam expectations.

So far, so good. But here is the rub. Expectations have been raised. A student who, for example, gets three A grades may decide that they could have been more ambitious than the offer they already hold and, buoyed by their success, may then seek a place at a more prestigious university.

They will get on the phone to a top university, explain their improved grades, and will, quite reasonably, expect to be considered for a place.

But the reality is that there will rarely be any places left. And this is the flaw in the system. Popular universities are heavily oversubscribed. They do not keep back spare places for last-minute applicants. Nor have they been required to do so for this new "adjustment period".

This halfway house looks like a cruel hoax on students

As one senior person at Ucas acknowledged recently, the chance of places remaining available on the most popular courses is "quite remote". Senior vice-chancellors agree with that assessment.

Indeed, this time round there is even less prospect than in previous years of there being any places spare on popular courses.

That is because universities have been busy making offers since the end of last year. But at the start of this year, the government suddenly announced that the planned expansion of places is to be cut back.

There will now be 5,000 fewer university places than were envisaged just a few months ago. Since universities face financial penalties if they over-recruit, some will now be wishing to reduce the number of offers they had been planning to make.

They will not be able to retract offers already made, but they will certainly not be offering additional places for the "adjustment period" in August.

The result is that students are being hoodwinked. The "adjustment period" looks like a small oasis for those who have done better than expected in their exams. They will expect a reward for their achievement. But they will find it is a mirage.


So why has this been allowed to happen? The truth is that, despite the government's enthusiasm for a post-qualifications application system, the universities are reluctant to change the status quo.

It would mean changes to the school examinations timetable or to university term dates, or a combination of the two. The adjustments need not be that great, particularly as technology has speeded up the pace of exam marking.

But, for now, there has not been enough political will to force through the change and caution has won the day.

If, as seems likely, this year's "adjustment period" results in hardly any applicants managing to upgrade their offers, then the whole issue must be looked at again.

Either the government should set out a clear timetable towards full post qualification applications or it should admit it does not have the stomach for the change.

This halfway house looks like a cruel hoax on students.

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