Sir Ron Dearing told that `last bastion of the gentleman scholar' will block his proposed reform of the post-16 system. Nicholas Pyke reports.
The university admissions office, blamed for blighting all attempts to broaden the sixth-form syllabus, is "the last bastion of the gentleman scholar", according to Brian Roper, the controversial vice-chancellor of North London University.
This week he told the Government's chief education adviser Sir Ron Dearing that universities are hiding behind the supposed intransigence of admissions tutors who, it is said, will resist alternatives to the A-level - including the alternatives floated by Sir Ron himself.
The answer, said Mr Roper, is simple: abolish the admissions tutors and replace them with a central registry system, admitting students according to their qualifications.
Mr Roper, the son of a London bus driver, was speaking at a conference featuring Sir Ron's first public talk since the launch of his mammoth review of 16 to 19 education, which attempts to boost the standing of vocational courses.
"In which other walk of life would you make a human capital decisions of this magnitude - worth at least Pounds 100,000 - at the whim of isolated individuals who have never been trained and who have no regard for the wider implications of their decisions?" asked Mr Roper, who is one of the more outspoken members of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. "This doesn't make any sense at all.
"The university admissions office is the last bastion of the gentleman scholar. They just do it this way because it's the way it's always been done.
"Admission should be a routine process where the offers are processed in a registry. No interviews or diagnostic tests. The instruments are already in place. All it would require is the will of senior managers of institutions. "
A will which Mr Roper believes has so far been lacking on the part of universities, who have been willing to pass the buck to the heads of individual departments.
The 150 teachers at the conference, staged as part of the centenary celebrations of Mr Roper's institution, were yet to receive their 700-page copy of Sir Ron's report. But there was a broad welcome for the idea of re-naming the General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) the Applied A-level.
"When I tried it out on some of my students they said that would be smashing, to have applied A-levels," said Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College in south-east London. But there was also concern that, without a major publicity drive, parents would remain cautious about any non-traditional qualification.
Sir Ron defended the Government's insistence that A-levels remain in place. "We can't afford to take any risks with the lifetime chances of young people. I tend to say let's go at it cannily rather than break the mould in one go. Education has had too many false starts, too many enthusiasms.
"For the right people A-level is a good challenge. But it isn't the right way for the majority."
He also took the opportunity to defend his proposal for a baccalaureate-style National Diploma against criticism that it is too prescriptive, and that without the support of the universities it will fail.
The details of the diploma - which demands that students study arts, sciences, languages and citizenship - are less important than the principle behind it, said Sir Ron. The details are open to negotiation.
"I was against saying everybody should take this course because everybody differs. I didn't dream of this being the course for someone who wants to be a musician, or a chemist.
"There's no question of this having a mass take-off. It would be irresponsible. There need to be in depth discussions. It's not immutable. We need to be clear about what is practical and what the university response will be. I don't expect and I don't want a massively quick take up."
He finished by reminding his audience that his next task is a review of the universities.