Susan Young uncovers discontent at the hiccup in university admissions reform. News that university principals have apparently got cold feet on plans to undertake a radical reform of the entrance system has been greeted with widespread dismay by heads, schools and sixth-formers.
The current arrangements, created by the merger of the polytechnics and universities admissions services have been in place for only a year, and have made life more difficult for would-be students and institutions alike by the Government penalties for missed recruitment targets.
Despite dire warnings of chaos, the system operated fairly smoothly last year but this has been put down mostly to luck. And apparently intractable problems remain: every would-be student now applies to eight universities but can hold offers from only two. Should they go for a high offer on the place they really want, plus a low banker? Or two high offers? Or two bankers?
Add the overall unreliability of predicting A-level results months ahead, plus the likelihood that admissions tutors will be tempted to make higher offers to offset the danger of having to give too many places to students and so risk punitive Government financial measures, and you begin to see why many schools and universities are pushing for change.
And this is where the problems start. In an ideal world, most people would like to see a post-qualifications admissions system, whereby candidates would only apply to universities once they knew their A-level and GNVQ results and could be sure of matching them with the course they wanted.
But that idea is beset by two difficulties: the timing of A-levels and the start of the university year. The exam boards say it is not possible to speed up the marking of papers, while many universities are unwilling to delay the start of the academic year until January as this would put them out of step with the time-tables of academic colleagues abroad. A Universities and Colleges Admissions Service consultation which included such radical suggestions was greeted with horror by the universities last year.
Moreover, the compromise enthusiastically adopted by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals working party on admissions - that it might be possible to speed up the admissions process without radically shifting either date - has had copious quantities of icy water poured upon it by alarmed universities. At least one observer believes the CVCP's reluctance is caused by a fear of losing control.
But what is to be done? A rise in applications this year will put the system under further strain which the CVCP's preferred compromise - a tweaking here and there, plus hopes that the advance of modular A-levels and vocational qualifications will obviate the necessity for major change - is unlikely to address.
There is little consensus among schools about what ought to be done, although most agree the present state of affairs is undesirable. Out of six secondary schools contacted at random by The TES, four condemned the present system and expressed preference for a post-results alternative, although with reservations.
But two saw problems. Janet McAllister, head of sixth form at Aylesbury High School for Girls in Buckinghamshire, from which 95 per cent of upper sixth-formers go on to higher education every year, said the current system gave students time fully to research their options. "It would concern me that a post-A-level application system would remove that time for students to think hard about what they want to do and lead them to accept the first place they are offered." She thought cutting the number of choices to six would help streamline the current system.
And at Fulford School on the outskirts of York, head Keith Hayton thought sixth-formers would find it unnerving to have no idea at all which university they might attend only weeks before they were due to go.
The National Association of Head Teachers also had reservations about the post-admissions system suggested by the CVCP's steering group. Senior assistant secretary Arthur de Caux was extremely concerned by the speed with which senior school staff would have to work as soon as A-level results came out in the summer in order to get pupils into the right places - a much more daunting prospect than the current system which sees staff working in the summer for some pupils who have failed to find a place at all.
He thought it would be more reasonable for the universities to consider shifting the start of term to January, thus giving all students an enforced gap of six months to mature and earn money before starting courses.
The Secondary Heads Association, on the other hand, is firmly committed to a post-results system and is deeply unhappy with the latest move by the CVCP.
"We're a little impatient that they are now dragging their feet," admitted general secretary John Sutton. SHA is keen on a new system, and the proposals which the working group wanted to examine - and will still do so, albeit as part of a wider consultation - would have suited the members well if they could have been made to work, said Mr Sutton.
He did not think the summer workload would have increased too dramatically, as much of the work on applications would have been done by prospective students earlier in the year. Moreover, he said, a post-results system would cut down on bureaucracy and ease sixth-formers' stress. Wholehearted support for such a system also comes from the National Union of Students.
The argument has been thrown into sharper focus by the recent decision by Oxford University to scrap its traditional entrance exam, regarded as favouring applicants from independent schools, although less than half of all undergraduates were chosen by that route. University authorities believe it will ensure the best candidates get the places.
Oxford NUS president Hopi Sen said that although moving to a conventional entrance system might be seen as an egalitarian move, sharp rent rises in the colleges and high living costs meant students from poorer backgrounds might still, in practice, be barred from an Oxford education. At least one college was sending a letter to parents warning that a Government grant and student loan were not enough for a student to live on in the city.
"It's a difficult situation. We want state school pupils to come to Oxford, but when colleges are charging very high rents and the cost of living out in Oxford is so expensive, the financial hardship is very real," he said.
University authorities, meanwhile, insist that the entrance exam and cost of living are not related. But if such controversy can beset a relatively simple, if anti-traditional change, what hopes can there be for a speedy solution to the overall admissions problem?