Students could receive offers from universities only after their A-level results are known under a major overhaul of admissions being proposed by vice-chancellors.
A post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system – where applicants receive university places based on their actual exam results – could be introduced across the UK by 2023/24 to reduce the reliance on predicted grades.
The proposal – which will be subject to further consultation – is one of a series of recommendations from an 18-month admissions review by Universities UK (UUK), which represents university leaders across Britain.
The review also calls for “conditional unconditional offers” – in which students are offered places regardless of exam results if they make an institution their firm choice – to be scrapped for good by 2021.
It adds that the use of unconditional offers should be restricted to specific applicant circumstances, including where such decisions have been informed by an interview, audition, submission of a portfolio or a skill test.
A new code of practice should be developed to make clear that the use of incentives in offer-making, such as financial inducements, should not place any undue pressure on applicants, the report adds.
Failure to adhere to the code would result in sanctions for universities, the UUK has said.
The review is also recommending that better, and more consistent information is made publicly available by universities on their use of contextual admissions to further boost social mobility.
It suggests developing minimum entry requirements for contextually-flagged applicants.
The recommendations come after Ucas proposed that students could apply to university after receiving their A-levels and they could start courses in January.
But the UUK report raises concerns about the disruption that would cause to school timetables, and it said shifting the start of the year to January could have implications for the university sector’s international competitiveness.
“Although not as radical a move to reform as shifting applications until after results day, the proposed model represents a fair and workable option for applicants,” the report says.
Although the UUK review acknowledges that switching to PQA might still be challenging for courses that are highly selective, it could be difficult to arrange interviews, and there may be an increase in admissions tests.
It could also mean there are fewer teachers available over the summer to help students make decisions, and less time for applicants to respond to offers.
Any possible move to PQA will be subject to full consultation and the UUK has said it believes it will take at least three years to implement the system.
The organisation will consult with universities, schools and government during this period to develop and further test the workability of the new approach.
Professor Quintin McKellar, vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire and chair of the Fair Admissions Review, said: “There isn’t a perfect one-size-fits-all solution for the variety of courses and institutions, but the review has decided it would be fairer for students to receive university places based on exam results, not predictions.
“Any change to PQA must be taken forward carefully by universities, with further consultation with students, government, and those working across the education sector.
“We need to be confident that any new process will allow for effective careers advice and support for applicants.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Universities rightly have autonomy over their admissions policies – this autonomy comes with a responsibility to review and evolve practices and address concerns.
“These recommendations are a sector-led set of reforms built on evidence from applicants, schools, universities, colleges and Ucas that will lead to a fairer and more transparent admissions system.”
But the higher education watchdog in England, the Office for Students (OfS), said a PQA system was “not a magic bullet for fair access”.
Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the OfS, said: “There is evidence that disadvantaged students could benefit from a system where offers are made on the basis of grades achieved rather than predicted grades, particularly in applications to the most selective universities.
“Post-qualification admissions could also help improve transparency in contextual admissions and other entry requirements. But it is not a magic bullet for fair access.”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “The current system is based on inaccurately predicted results and leads to those from less affluent backgrounds losing out.
“Allowing students to apply after they receive their results will help level the playing field and put a stop to the chaotic clearing scramble.”
She added: “UCU and many sector leaders now agree the time has come for the UK to join the rest of the world and finally to move away from the current unfair system.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “There is a growing consensus in favour of ending the current reliance on predicted grades and moving to a system of post-qualification admissions.
“Teachers work hard and diligently to provide accurate predicted grades, but it is not an exact science and never can be.
“Post-qualification admissions would be better and fairer.”
A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said: “The Government made an election promise to improve the applications system for students.
“We have already been clear that reform is required and therefore welcome UUK’s agreement on the need for change. We will set out more on the Government’s plans for university admissions shortly.”