Labour plans a shake-up of English university admissions

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IT IS, AT first glance, an odd way to do things. Universities in England decide early in the year whether to make offers to applicants, before they have any idea of how well they have done in their school-leaving exams, known as A-levels, which are taken in the summer. Instead, wannabe students provide their marks in earlier tests, a “personal statement” boasting of their brilliance and—most controversially—the A-level grades their teachers expect them to get. Universities then make offers that are conditional on the student receiving certain grades in the summer. This year’s applicants will find out if they have made the cut on August 15th.

They may be among the last to go through the unusual application process. On August 14th the opposition Labour Party threw its support behind plans for an alternative system, in which prospective students would apply to university after they had received their grades. Such a move is already backed by the University and College Union, which represents lecturers, and the Sutton Trust, an influential education charity. Universities UK, which represents universities, and the Office for Students, the higher-education regulator, are also considering reforms.

It is not hard to find flaws in the current system. Teachers often get predicted grades wrong, and they are biased. Evidence suggests that they over-predict the grades that poor pupils will achieve—except when it comes to the cleverest among them, whom they tend to underestimate. Having pupils apply before they get their results makes it harder to get unconfident ones to aim high, says Anna Vignoles, an education expert at Cambridge University. Applying with real results might also reduce the importance of personal statements, nicknamed “brag sheets”, which give an edge to those with pushy parents or teachers.

University bureaucrats worry about the upheaval involved in Labour’s proposal. If the application process were squeezed into the existing timetable, some dons would have to spend the summer screening applicants rather than doing research (or enjoying the sun). It would also put applicants under pressure to make a life-changing decision very quickly, providing little time for them to visit campuses to give them a once-over. Mike Nicholson, head of admissions at the University of Bath, worries that speeding up the process would make it hard for universities to tailor their offers to the background of applicants, as most now do.

Many of these problems could be solved by a more radical rejigging of the university calendar, perhaps with the academic year starting in January (as it already does for some postgraduate and international students) rather than September. And the switch to a post-qualification admissions system ought eventually to mean less work for universities. Under the current system, pupils apply to up to five universities, to insure against better- or worse-than-expected results. If they knew their results when applying they would probably apply to fewer places, meaning less paperwork for the universities. In 2012 an estimate by UCAS, the national body that runs admissions, suggested that such a change could save universities £18m ($29m) a year.

The system is already moving in the direction of post-qualification admissions. Last year one in ten students got a place after receiving their results, via a system known as clearing. This has long been a way for students who miss their grades to find a last-minute alternative place. Now it is sometimes used to trade up, when pupils approach higher-ranked universities after getting better-than-expected grades. Another recent shift has been a sharp rise in the number of unconditional offers, as universities compete to attract students (much to the concern of teachers, who fear that no-strings offers make pupils slack off in their exams). A change of admissions systems would be difficult. But even among vice-chancellors there is growing acceptance that it might be worthwhile.