Will universities agree to change?

Observations on A-levels

The proposal to scrap A-levels and GCSEs in favour of a new, broad-ranging diploma programme leaves a big question unanswered: how will the universities in future organise their admissions? The proposal came this month from Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools who is now in charge of a review of qualifications for 14- to 19-year-olds.

UK universities rely overwhelmingly on A-level scores in making admissions. The scores generally reflect two things: how well the student has been taught a subject (which has some intrinsic value) and how well he or she has been taught to take A-levels (which has none). In both cases, children from richer families are at an advantage because their parents can pay for better teaching and preparation. The trouble with a standardised, national exam such as the A-level is that it is hard to persuade anybody that those with high scores should be excluded, even when those scores don't truly reflect an applicant's university potential. Students who get particular grades feel they are entitled to acceptance. Those rejected feel their rights are being violated - hence the furore over "reverse discrimination" at Bristol.

Will Tomlinson's proposal help? Not on its own; indeed, it could even make things worse. The new diploma would rely heavily on internal assessments by the pupils' own teachers. These are inevitably difficult to compare between schools, and the danger is that universities will play it safe and take an even higher proportion from well-known fee-charging schools than they do now.

What is needed is a change in the whole way that universities approach admissions. The whole focus needs to be on future potential, not past achievement. In the US, universities choose students according to how successful the admissions officials think they will be in the future. There, acceptance is a privilege that academic talent scouts grant to students who appear to possess impressive ability, motivation and potential. They will look at secondary school grades, and at standardised national test scores that measure general aptitude (SAT I) as well as subject learning (SAT II). But they will also look at extensive essays on personal experiences, philosophy or reasons for applying; interviews and recommendations; and extracurricular materials such as performance tapes or newspaper articles. US admissions officials regard all these as "tools" that give them different types of insight into what makes applicants tick and what they might bring to a college campus. No single factor is decisive. If a university is not impressed by your perfect test scores, that's too bad. Harvard is notorious for rejecting hundreds of students each year with perfect scores of 1,600 on the SAT aptitude test, even when they also earned superb grades at school.

Once A-levels join the 11-plus exam in the bin, the stakes will be high for British universities to determine a new admissions policy. If they are to create one that is more effective in finding students of high potential, without regard to class or school background, they will need to form separate admissions departments that employ professionals trained to assess young academic talent, just as American universities do now.

In many areas of government policy, politicians are forced to make difficult trade-offs between equa- lity and efficiency. Here, a better university admissions system should deliver more equal opportunities for the poor and underprivileged while also providing the country with more talented, high-achieving graduates. Given the will, everybody can win.