Rush for university places fiercest in living memory


The rush by students to get into university this year, ahead of the £9,000 tuition fees hike, means even pupils with top grades have missed out on a place.

Hundreds of teenagers with straight A* grades were left without a university to go to in an unprecedented scramble for places.

Despite picking up the elite A-level grade – introduced last year as a new ‘gold standard’ – they face a desperate battle through the clearing system.

Only 40,000 places are available with 220,000 youngsters chasing them.

Four thousand students with straight As had no offers. Unless they secure one through clearing, they face going to university next year when annual tuition fees treble to a maximum of £9,000.

One academic said the competition for places was the ‘fiercest in living memory’.Most of the leading universities did not even enter the clearing system, which allocates last-minute places.

Places are available only in lower-ranked institutions and in less sought-after disciplines such as computing, business studies and biological science.

The scramble for places came as:

  • Universities minister David Willetts claimed it would be ‘cheaper’ to start courses in 2012;
  • Boys closed the gender gap with girls, getting the same number of top grades for the first time;
  • Pass rates rose for the 29th consecutive year, with one in four awarded an A;
  • Maths and science enjoyed a resurgence in popularity. Maths entries have risen 40 per cent over five years;
  • Exam boards were braced for a record number of complaints following marking blunders.
  • The shortage of places was caused by 682,367 candidates applying for 350,000 places. Around 100,000 of these candidates will have now decided not to go to university, to take a gap year or to study abroad.

This leaves an estimated 220,000 hopefuls – including mature and foreign students and students who failed to get in last year – chasing the 40,000 places.

Among them are 62,500 candidates who got their results yesterday and either had not been offered a spot or missed their grades.

It is estimated around 50,000 in clearing had grades equivalent to BBB or above.

Although 10,000 extra places were made available, there were 40,000 more applicants than usual, probably because of the fees hike.

The rush saw the University and College Admissions Service website crash as those who had missed their grades tried to secure offers. It failed to cope with a fourfold increase in the number of visits and normal service was not resumed until midday on Thursday. Although the system does not give grades, students can see whether they have been accepted at their first or second choice of university.

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, claimed the system was in chaos.

"It always happens when the pressure on the system is greatest, the cracks begin to show," he said.

‘Not only have the students been in the fiercest competition for places in living memory, but the support system for those who have missed out on their grades hasn’t worked properly.

‘Ucas normally does these things very smoothly, but today, of all days, it hasn’t been able to cope. It’s the worst chaos in university admissions history.’

Those students forced to start university in 2012 will graduate with debts of around £57,000, compared with £29,000 for those starting their studies now.

Those who fail to get into university must now decide whether to reapply for next year or look for work.

Exam boards, some of which have had to admit over the summer that they set impossible questions and made errors in papers, are expecting a record number of complaints as desperate students seek to raise their grades.

TUC deputy general secretary Frances O’Grady said: "Because of the rush to avoid next year’s fees hike, and the Government’s refusal to fund extra university places, record numbers of students will lose out on higher education altogether."

A record 195,000 people - 10,000 more than this time last year - are eligible to compete for clearing places this year.

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