Susan Young reports as vice-chancellors fight shy of changes to the application system.
University principals have backtracked on plans to radically reform the entrance system within two years.
Last month, a steering group of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals set up to review the entrance system, decided to investigate the possibility of prospective students applying only after their A-level results were known.
Two working groups were set up one of which was to look into the possibilities of using new technology, with the aim of giving a new system its first run in autumn 1997. Previously, the CVCP had been distinctly lukewarm towards such plans, but within days the working groups' proposals met with almost unanimous approval from the organisation's influential council.
But last week a meeting of the full CVCP forced the steering group to widen its remit to look at ways of simply improving the current system as well as reforming it. In a sometimes heated discussion, many principals accused the steering group of giving the impression that an "infeasible" aim was, in fact, possible. Although some observers believe the uproar was caused by alarm among a traditionally conservative organisation, chairman Dr Kenneth Edwards denied that members were guilty of being dinosaurs. "To continue the zoo analogy, we were worried about the probability of inventing a camel rather than something that we would like," he said.
He added: "There was a full and vigorous discussion. People felt quite strongly that there was a danger of the whole system being railroaded."
Dr Edwards said there were strong reservations that any reformed system would rely too heavily on computer matching, without the personal contact of interviews, and also that candidates might not be left with sufficient time to make the right decision.
Moreover, he said that developments in modular A-levels and General National Vocational Qualifications, in which the final result could be accurately predicted before the final module was taken, might make the system proposed by the steering group redundant. Even if it was decided that a post-results system were feasible, Dr Edwards added, it was highly unlikely that it would be in place for 1997. Even if the work could be done in time, dry runs would be needed.
John Dunford, head of Durham Johnston school in Durham and one of the school representatives on the CVCP steering group, said secondary schools would be disappointed by the news.
"A move forward to post-qualifications applications process for universities would have considerable benefits, not only for students but also for the universities themselves. It will reduce the number of applications per place and hence the administration, it will reduce the stress which young people feel during their upper sixth year and it will mean that they will apply only to places which they really want to attend and for which they have the right level of qualification."
He added: "Universities have had an enormous amount of change. One can understand them being reluctant about a revolutionary change to the admissions system overnight."