They pass their A-levels and become consumers. And they know what they do and don't want. This year 39,000 did not want the university places offered them. Esther Oxford investigates
"Thanks but no thanks," was Emma Seward's response to Hull University's offer of a place this year. "Yes, I'd like to study English literature, but at the moment I'll do what I want, when I want." Across the rest of the country 39,000 students were coming up with the same response, according to figures released on 29 August by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas). All had been offered a university place. Yet all had decided that actually - after years of study, hours of form-filling and days of interviews - they did not want to take up the offer after all.

The students themselves tend to think they are "one-offs". "Most of my friends are taking up their places," says Emma, 18. But the Ucas figures show that one in nine students "disappears" in this way. Universities are starting to get worried. "We don't think it is alien abduction," says Dr Ted Nield, spokesman for the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, "but we are anxious to find out where they are vanishing to."

Ucas is so worried about the missing 39,000 that it is planning to send questionnaires to 4,000 of them to ask: Why are you abandoning our system? Where are you disappearing to? And: Are you planning to come back? Parents, too, are fretful - images of squats, New Age travellers and endless Giro cheques are in their minds. "My mother talked about it for ages with me - pointing out the pitfalls, the problems I am likely to confront," says Emma. "'Think of the bills', she told me, 'the rent, the telephone. It might not work out'."

The staff at Ucas do have some explanations for the phenomenon: some students opt to take a gap year; others decide to retake their A-levels and reapply to a more favoured university; a few manage to get jobs. Fear of debt is also a popular explanation.

But talk to a few of this year's "elopers" and another side of the story emerges. Reforms intended to make universities more open and responsive to the needs of students have created a "seller-seduces-purchaser" system, one in which talented students now have the power to select a university course, squeeze it, bite it, swill it, then spit it out at whim if they do not like it. Students are not given places any more, handed down from on high; they choose them, they are consumers, in charge of what they are doing. They talk about "assessing the marketplace", of "making choices", of "getting value for money". "This is a consumer's market," they say. "If the product [in this case, the university] does not please, we walk away." This is the new generation, the student-consumers.

These students are not bashful when it comes to approaching the university of their choice. "What exactly have you got to offer me?" is the usual tack. Rules are there to be broken: students have been known to short- circuit the system and apply directly to universities rather than going through Ucas, for example. "Today's students are more prepared to stick out for what they want," says Jess Enderby, from the chief executive's office of Ucas. "They are more willing to challenge the system."

Such "market-awareness" is commendable, admissions staff concede. But the growing trend among young people to "pick and choose" and "spit out at will", has proved a bureaucratic and financial nightmare for universities anxious to fill quotas.

"Clearly, universities are concerned about the growing problem of 'lost' students," explains Mr Enderby. "It makes sense to try to find out why qualified students are not completing the applications procedures."

Before the Sixties, students applied to universities directly. Obtaining a place at university was an honour: there were just 50,000 places in the Fifties, compared with today's 270,000, an explosive growth recently fuelled by the Government's higher education reforms, which have created many more universities and tied funding to the number of students. By 1961 the student population had escalated with the building of the red- brick universities. The University Central Council on Admissions (UCCA) was set up to centralise the university admissions system; Polytechnics and Colleges Admissions Service (PCAS) followed later in 1985, then in 1993 the two were merged to create Ucas. It was only in 1994 that the worry about the missing students surfaced.

Until two years ago, UCCA held the reins. Students who went through the clearing system were automatically assigned to the course best suited to them. Any empty places were filled. Now it has changed - the students decide where they want to go; universities are having to seduce students. Universities and colleges are spending at least pounds 14m a year on advertising - more than twice the amount they spent in 1991 - with the biggest spenders enjoying annual marketing budgets of up to pounds 750,000, says Julie Towers, managing director of Riley Nottingham agency.

For those universities that fail to win admirers, the penalties are harsh: a department can lose an average of pounds 1,500 a year in fee income for each place it fails to fill, plus a similar amount in core grant from the Higher Education Council. The long-term implications are even more brutal: a reduction in this year's intake can mean a substantial cut in next year's grant. A spiral of decline can then threaten. Ms Towers says some new universities would almost certainly have to cut jobs because of unfilled places. Applications have dropped by as much as 13 per cent this year in some cases.

Some universities have been filling places by cold-calling schools. A number are accepting candidates with very low A-level grades. Others (including a quarter of the 80 "old" universities) are resorting to elaborate marketing devices: national press advertisements and Teletext listings as well as a published e-mail address. The University of Greenwich, south-east London, is offering a pounds 250 "scholarship" to new applicants willing to fill the empty places.

Next spring's report will explain for the first time whether fear of debt, lack of support, poor careers advice or an inept admissions system are in any way responsible for the students' defection.

Three 18-year-olds from Newbury - Mark Walker, Emma Hurst and Libby Waldie - are good examples of those who have opted-out of university, if only for this academic year. Mark Walker says "inadequate" careers advice from teachers at school meant that he was left to his own devices when it came to the crunch: should he go to university or should he take a job?

"The school was geared up to sending people to university. They were not interested in advising students who wanted to get a job." He eventually turned down Oxford Brookes University's offer of a place and accepted a trainee position at Bayer, the chemicals company. He turned to his parents and friends for support. His teachers, he feels, might not have been sympathetic.

Mr Enderby can see Mark's point. "The sheer volume of choice can be a problem for some students - with 200 institutions to go to and 35,000 courses to choose from." Some Scottish universities have set up helplines where students can ask for advice on money, jobs and course options. A similar scheme in England and Wales might be useful.

Money worries were also a deterrent, says Mark. "I know students who don't have pounds 5 in their pocket. I didn't want to live like that." A recent National Union of Students survey of 1,000 sixth-formers found he was not exceptional in his concern about money. "About a quarter of the 16- and 17-year-olds we talked to said that financial worries put them off going to university," says Louise Clark, a senior NUS official.

An antiquated admissions system is yet another obstacle. At present, students must apply a year in advance. Mistakes are common. Emma Hurst has been forced to take a year out after changing her mind about which college to attend. She thinks students should be able to apply after they receive their A-level grades. If talks among members of the CVCP and Ucas prove fruitful, this may well happen, says Mr Enderby.

Libby Waldie also wishes she had had more time to consider her options. She was offered a place to study tourism and management at Sheffield Hallam University but turned it down. "I decided that hands-on experience might be preferable. At the moment I don't know enough about the industry to know where I want to specialise. But I may reapply."

Sue Waldie, her mother, feels sorry that her daughter had to make such an important decision so young in her life. "It is so hard for these teenagers - my heart goes out to them. All that soul-searching, the tears. It has been hard for Libby, not knowing whether she has made the right decision."

This year the Samaritans launched an advertising campaign urging teenagers worried about A-levels and university to talk their problems through, rather than give in to despair. Libby did not use the service before "disappearing" from the university system. She talked to her parents, friends and teachers instead. "She has been up one day and down the next - I never know if I'm going to say the right thing. And those headaches," says Mrs Waldie, with sympathy. "I never had to make decisions like that when I was her age."

To make matters worse, advisers have been urging floundering students "not to delay" and to take up a place this year, if at all possible. A rise in the number of 18-year-olds could mean tougher competition next year, they say, especially for popular courses such as history, English, law and medicine. This year 400,000 sixth-formers applied for 270,000 places - already an increase of 1.5 per cent from last year.

Mr Enderby predicts another 39,000 student-consumers will "disappear" next year. The numbers also reflect a growing concern with the quality of qualifications, he believes. Now almost anyone can get a degree. Students recognise this. They are striving to get into the best universities - even if it means withdrawing from Ucas, retaking A-levels, then reapplying.

Many of the "elopers" are expected to return to university. These students have been bred for the market: idealism and youthfulness have not been weeded out completely, but have been mixed together with a sense of the power and the responsibilities of their freedom of choice and an appreciation of the work ethic. They are brash, competitive, apparently sure of themselves but also aware they live in a shifting, insecure world. The government's reforms have let the genie out of the bottle: few academics, admissions tutors and even vice-chancellors will escape the impact of the student-consumer choices.