A-level results brought forward
The change will allow for the introduction of an "upgrade week" - seven days during which teenagers who perform better than predicted by their schools can make fresh applications.
At present, pupils who want to apply to a better university after they receive their results have to ditch existing offers before going through the clearing system.
But this will no longer be necessary under the new arrangements. Clearing will start after upgrade week finishes. Ministers say that about 9,000 students a year could benefit from the changes.
The move is a tentative first step towards a fully post-qualifications application (PQA) system in which all selection decisions would take place after A-levels.
Ministers say they want this to happen by 2012. Last year, it was suggested it could be introduced from 2010. PQA is thought to be fairer to pupils because 55 per cent of grade predictions are wrong. Ministers say pupils from poorer backgrounds lose out disproportionately.
But universities appear to have scuppered any immediate move towards PQA. A government consultation found that from 68 per cent of responses against PQA, most were from higher education.
The National Union of Students said it was extremely disappointed that the proposals did not go further.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said this week's announcement represented a "very small incremental step" towards a full PQA system.
He said: "I am pleased that the Government is still saying that we want a PQA system, although this is dreadfully slow progress towards it.
"I have been involved with attempting to devise a PQA system since 1994.
"Throughout my 12 years on this, the universities have resisted change. I think they will continue to resist change. That's a concern, because I think the students' interests would be much better served by a PQA system."
A spokesman for Universities UK said that moving to PQA would involve major change for universities, and that 2012 was therefore a more realistic target.