The chain linking schools with higher education is broken. To fix it, universities must change their timetable

10th June 2011 at 01:00

No country is in quite such a mess as England in dealing with the frontier between its secondary schools and higher education. This muddle could be sorted, but any serious effort to do that requires one big initial push - and only the universities themselves can make that happen.

Consider the array of nasty problems. Universities have to deal with a rising flood of applications, and make multiple offers without knowing the key examination results. In August, there is an almighty flap as 18-year-olds (and their jumpy parents) scrabble for the few remaining places, while universities rush to fill empty spaces. Politicians and the press niggle at universities for favouring public school "toffs", or for being biased towards state school pupils - or even, somehow, committing both grave sins at the same time.

Oxford and Cambridge try to stand aloof from the general scramble by operating under different and complicated rules. In a curious and totally unhealthy way - quite without parallel elsewhere in the world - that antique duo dominate public discussion of university access and social mobility. Other countries do not suffer anything like the strange phenomenon of young people classifying themselves, often resentfully, as "Oxbridge rejects".

There are plenty of bright, if sometimes plain daft, ideas on how to back out of this crazy situation: abolish public schools; introduce quotas to favour disadvantaged kids; give extra marks to grotty postcodes; turn the most seductive universities into all-graduate research shops; get smarter at spotting the difference between potential and performance ("proved" only by examination results); look harder for different sorts of worthiness - blowing bassoons, chatting to OAPs, climbing mountains, being keen on debates, kicking footballs. Or, much trickier, go on fiddling away with examination grades by inventing the A* - and a bit later, no doubt, the A***.

But there is one idea that keeps popping up, before being shoved aside. At the heart of all the current tangles is the nonsensically short gap between the publication of results each year - on that overheated August day - and all the final decisions by universities over whom to admit. Why all this uncertainty and flustered rush? We need to deal with this before anyone can get on with solving the real problem.

Suppose, just for a moment, that no places were offered before results were known. What would happen? In week one (or two) after the results appear, young people, knowing just where they are, could apply to their universities of choice, on very much the same basis as at present - but with much more information. Universities could then survey the whole field of qualified applicants, make their own sensible choices, interview if they really want to, and have the time to do so. A few weeks of manoeuvring and all is done and dusted.

What is more, this simple change could be introduced in 2013 at the latest, if there is a real will to try. Once that is done, universities will be able, over time, to sharpen up their own admissions criteria (what they want and expect), react to a much more open market, stop guessing and gambling with offers and get real. The pluses for candidates and those who help them stick out a mile.

It will be said that this is not a new idea. Well, true enough - but insofar as anybody bothers to think about it at all, it is only to mumble that A-level examinations should obviously be taken earlier. This just will not do. The summer term in schools is already hard enough to run well and it is laughable to suggest that exams might be taken even earlier, with all the implications for keeping pupils motivated in a target-driven system, as the steam hisses out from the boilers.

All the signs locally and nationally are that the white paper on higher education is imminent, that it is being re-written on a daily or hourly basis and is the subject of coalitionist dealings. The argument for post-qualification admissions is powerful and may be advanced in the white paper, but on what terms? Will the battered schools just be expected to accept even earlier examinations?

So, why not push now for a simple one-off change by the universities themselves? Universities could quite easily - particularly if prompted by a Government that most vice-chancellors seem quite anxious to please - move briskly to a January start. This would give students leaving school a few blessed months in which to settle their futures, maybe discover themselves and even make a useful contribution to the Big Society. Three years down the line (and once only) there would indeed be an unprecedented three-month pause before that one generation of new graduates hits the labour market. Anyone who says that employers - including schools seeking freshly minted teachers - could not cope with that short hiccup should not be believed.

Some newer and more flexible universities might even choose to benefit themselves and the economy by shortening some of their less demanding courses to eight terms or fewer, and why not? Who said that it must always (but only in England, of course) take three years to bake a graduate in the oven? Presumably the long-dead folk who also knew that the year should begin with eating a Michaelmas goose and be preceded by a long vacation because of the harvest.

A couple of the more venerable and justly admired universities should, however, now take the lead and press for a rather more modern pattern of work and study. Then the game of admissions and access might even begin in earnest.

Harry Judge is a former Oxford University admissions tutor and head of both a grammar and a comprehensive school. He has worked in the US and France.

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