Not for the first time the issue of post A-level results applications to university is in the news, this time as a promise from Labour that it would introduce such a scheme. Norman Gowar, co-author of English Universities in Crisis, highlights how this change would improve participation.

Arguments against are familiar and seem feeble: lack of time to process applications or for students to make a choice, having to put in place special support for those students with particular needs, or for interviews. Some, such as the need in some subjects for auditions are more credible, but none are insuperable. After all, the high number of places offered during clearing and the extensive advertising offering students the chance to change their minds seems to suggest it’s all possible.

One of the problems of the current system is that it advantages students from privileged schools. They come from an environment tuned from the start in preparing students to compete for university places: in preparation for examinations, familiarity with the tone of academic discourse, in general confidence and in a hinterland of extra-curricular achievements. All this favours pre-results applications, providing a context for the application and, where there is one, in the interview.

Furthermore, familiarity with schools with a strong record of sending pupils to university gives more confidence to the university in A-level predictions.

All these advantages provide a context for a conditional offer, which may well be honoured even it results are a near miss and are particularly strong for university able to be more selective in their choice.

Visits to universities to help students choose their preferred courses would be unaffected – choices based on the universities themselves, the portfolio of courses and the entry requirements. Students would be ready as soon as results are out to submit their applications with a reasonable expectation that they are at least realistic.

As for the need for ‘significant changes’ argued by opponents, they do not seem to be insuperable and, if necessary, bringing A level examinations forward by a couple of weeks and similarly delaying the start for new students could hardly be called ‘significant’.

Efforts to improve participation, particularly to the more selective universities, have hardly been sensational. Post results offers, together with means testing of fees and maintenance loans might well be more effective. And it would certainly put a stop to the scandalous rise in unconditional offers.

English Universities in Crisis, by Jefferson Frank, Norman Gowar and Michael Naef is available on the Bristol University Press website. Order here for £10.39.

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