The mother of all mad scrambles for university places began in earnest yesterday with at least 180,000 young people desperately searching for a course.
Figures showed that, in total, 180,632 university hopefuls were searching for a place through the Clearing system by last night – 45,000 more than at the same time last year. Ucas, the University and Colleges Admissions Service, was also waiting to hear whether a further 105,471 had been successful in seeking a place or had to carry on their search.
Those still hunting had fewer options open to them this year, as only 18,000 courses had vacancies, compared with 32,000 at the same stage last year. Some may have more than one place on offer – last year, the 32,000 courses produced 47,673 places.
The signs seem to suggest that record numbers of students will end up disappointed, but in percentage terms the figure is not as high as in the 1960s and 1970s, when around 50 per cent of applicants were regularly turned away.
Mary Curnock Cook, the CEO of Ucas, said she expected that between 65 and 70 per cent of applicants would be successful by the end of the day. She described this year as "perhaps the most competitive year for higher education admissions in the last 10".
However, in a statement, the National Association of Head Teachers said: "It is a matter of regret and concern that unacceptably large numbers of students may be denied places in higher education."
Professor Les Ebdon, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chairman of million+, the university think tank, added: "It makes no sense that well-qualified students may miss out just because they happen to have turned 18 in 2010 or because they have found themselves unemployed in their thirties and forties as a result of the recession.
"Rather than tell applicants to lower their expectations, the Government must give serious thought to what more it could do for disappointed applicants."
The good news yesterday was that record numbers of students were confirmed in their university courses after their A-level results – 379,411, compared with 371,016 on results day last year.
Dr Wendy Piatt, the director-general of the Russell Group, which represents 20 of the country's leading research institutions including Oxford and Cambridge, congratulated students on their achievements.
But she added: "Although there has been a real increase in numbers of students from lower socioeconomic groups, we remain concerned about the under-representation of students from comprehensive schools amongst the highest-achieving A-level candidates."
She added that the best way to achieve a higher success rate lay in ensuring pupils achieved their potential at school. The Universities Minister, David Willetts, said to those left disappointed: "I think it is great that young people aim high but it is competitive and sadly not every person who applies will get a place.
"There are more places at university than ever before and in fact, at this moment, more prospective students have now got a definitive firm place at university than at this point last year."
Overall, there have been 673,098 applications for university places this autumn – including 56,000 from youngsters who failed to obtain a place last year and a 23 per cent increase in applications from over-40s. The figure is a marked rise on the 609,155 in 2009.
A leading vice-chancellor also called for students struggling to find a university place to consider a "learn while you earn" alternative.
Professor Ruth Farwell, the vice-chancellor of Buckinghamshire New University, said part-time courses opened up more employment opportunities than traditional degrees.
"A wide range of employers are now offering opportunities to gain higher-education qualifications linked to their line of business," she said.