The right place in a tight time

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PREDICTIONS of desperate days appear to have been well founded as thousands of would-be university students, having had two or three days to absorb their A-level results, face competition in one of the toughest clearing rounds ever.

Frank Griffiths, deputy principal of Leeds Metropolitan University, said he expects UCCA to close earlier than usual, with many more students searching for places through PCAS, the clearing house for former polytechnics.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of PCAS, spelled it out: 'People with 'C's and 'D's will get somewhere, provided they are flexible about where they go and what they do, but people with 'E's who want to do arts and social sciences are going to struggle for a place.'

While A-level students have been agonising over their results, university admissions staff have been just as worried. If they overshoot recruitment targets linked to Government funding limits, there will be no money for the extra students. Nevertheless, those who have met their A-level offers can rest assured they cannot be turned away simply because a course is full. 'If you have met your offer and a university tries to say it has too many students and no room for you, consult your solicitor immediately and sue them,' said Mr Higgins.

The good news ends there. Normally a dropped grade or two, even in top-flight universities, meets with a sympathetic response. Not this year. If an offer says minimum two 'C's and a 'B' for French, then a candidate with two 'A's but a 'C' for French will almost certainly be rejected.

That sort of rejected candidate is still relatively well qualified and is probably holding as insurance another offer from a less prestigious university or college. In the past these 'insurance' offers were often not taken up. This year they will be. So the second-choice universities will fill up, leaving no room for the students who normally go into clearing.

Until the first clearing vacancies are published on Wednesday, no one can be sure of the outcome. Pressure on arts and social science places will undoubtedly be high, but there will be a large number of places available, as usual, for science and engineering courses.

But aspiring students must be be quick and canny to find the right place. Ideally, they will already have spoken with their sixth-form careers adviser and prepared themselves.

The temptation for anxious applicants is to get on the phone to anywhere and everywhere at once. The urge should be resisted, said Margaret Kilyon, admissions officer of London Guildhall University. 'We get a lot of people ringing who, to be honest, don't seem to care what they apply for. They say: 'What have you got vacancies in?' It is such an important decision they are taking; they really don't want to go into a course that isn't what they expected it to be.'

In any case, universities may be unable to reply for several days. Applicants with the right grades for first-choice or insurance places have a week to decide which to take; tutors then have until this Friday to calculate their vacancies. So, while everyone should ring first-choice and insurance universities, the next calls should wait until you do some research and get some advice.

Anyone with aspirations in maths, science or engineering, including holders of arts A-levels who want to convert to science or engineering, can take their time: even with a 'D' and an 'E' you should find places.

But would-be arts and social science students will have to use their ingenuity. They need to look at combined studies courses and modular courses, particularly if they can manage a bit of science, such as ecology, astronomy or health sciences. They need to hunt down new courses that are not in the UCCA and PCAS handbooks but may be listed in supplements in careers libraries, and they should consider other than degree courses.

In past years the B Ed teaching qualification has taken applicants with low grades, but they will be among the tightest courses this year, so that safety net no longer exists.

Having checked out courses that may interest them, applicants will be well advised to begin ringing round. They should telephone if they have had a hint they may be on a reserve list. It is also worth ringing about vacancies advertised in the press. Most important is to be prepared when vacancies are first published on Wednesday in the Independent and on the Campus 2000 and ECCTIS electronic databases in schools, libraries and careers offices. BBC Radio 5 will be running an on-air advice service tomorrow from 1.10 to 2pm and Tuesday to Friday from 1.10 to 2.30pm. Its freephone helpline, 0500 505050, is open from 10am to 6pm until 31 August.

Remember, too, that admissions tutors, particularly this year, will err on the side of caution before announcing vacancies, so there is a chance more courses will come into clearing in the second week.

(Photograph omitted)