Dramatic changes to the A-level points system, which have major implications for schools, employers and university entrance, could be in place by the turn of the century.
The proposed computer-based system would mean that admissions tutors could see a candidate's academic profile at the touch of a button. This would call up a pupil's achievements, which could include A- and AS-levels, vocational qualifications, skills, access courses and the Modern Apprenticeship.
The vast array of qualifications now presented by university applicants - only a few years ago most candidates just had A-levels - has sparked the research, which was carried out by the Universities and Colleges Admissions System and funded by the Department for Education and Employment.
The entry criteria, in which A-level grades are awarded points and added to give the candidate's total, are thought to be too simplistic. UCAS is to consult on new equivalencies so that achievements, such as vocational qualifications, can be treated as part of a points system where necessary.
However, Malcolm Deere, head of the information and planning group at UCAS and director of the new tariff, profile and score project, said: "I think it would be a nonsense to give a number to the development of a skill, such as problem- solving, and add to it a points score derived from the A-level examination. You need to report them separately, otherwise it is like trying to combine apples and pears."
Although full consultation has yet to go ahead and much will depend on the technology being available, Mr Deere is confident that the scheme will come into use, probably for entry in 2000. Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the DFEE and some universities have been involved so far.
Mr Deere said the proposed system would give a clear idea of strengths and weaknesses. Qualifications would appear as vertical blocks across the screen, with basic requirements expressed as the width and achievement (grades) as the height.
The new-style AS-level, as proposed by Sir Ron, would have the same width as a full A-level (but only half the height) because it could be used as a building block for the full qualification.
Modules could be shown as part of the blocks, and it would be easy to see if a candidate was achieving better or worse as the course went on - information that schools might be reluctant to provide, said Mr Deere.
This information would also make it easier for admissions tutors to judge the accuracy of a school's predictions of a pupil's final results if some modules, AS-levels, skills qualifications or other achievements were visible. Colour-coding of qualifications and expected, as distinct from achieved, results would make the diagram clearer.
Eventually, such profiles could be useful to employers as an adjunct to the national record of achievement and in general as a tool of lifelong learning. The system could sidestep the arguments among the universities, schools and exam boards about whether higher education applications should be done on expected grades, as now, or transformed to a post A-level system.
Theoretically, it would be possible for aspiring students to check the entry profiles of courses they found interesting, work towards that, and apply when they were on target for a particular institution.
* UCAS has released research showing that about 33,000 of the 205,000 applicants who last year achieved the minimum qualifications for university entrance did not go there. A survey showed that 85 per cent said they did not receive a place. Half of those surveyed have taken a year out to earn money for future study. Most declined offers because they wanted to rethink their career path.