More than 200,000 university applicants will fail to get places this year, the head of the admissions service has warned, in a repeat of last summer's chaotic scramble following the publication of A-level results.
A "carbon copy" of last year, when 210,000 people did not get places, is inevitable, especially with record interest from teenagers ahead of increasing tuition fees next year, according to the University and College Admissions Service (Ucas).
The number of candidates who fail to get into university is expected to rise when results are published in two weeks. Disappointed teenagers will have to accept that their applications were just "not strong enough", said Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, in an interview with The Independent.
Applications have increased by a further 1.4 per cent (9,000) but the number of university places available remains about the same.
There would, she said, be "a lot of downward pressures" which could see a reduction in applications next year, the higher tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year being only one of them.
Ms Curnock Cook said those who fail to find a place on A-level day will be faced with two choices: "One is to go into clearing and the other is to re-apply next year". Last year, 50,000 students found places during clearing.
"Some of them may have to realise their application wasn't strong enough," Ms Curnock Cook said, "and others should definitely think about reapplying next year". Those who try again next year will face the new higher fees regime. One consequence of the new system, according to Sir Steve Smith, president of the vice-chancellors' umbrella group Universities UK, will be that universities will "buy" top students by offering them discounts. He said: "Those students become like gold dust for [the universities'] reputation. So you might have an incredibly strong series of incentives. They are going to have to work out if they start 'buying' AAB students."
Ms Curnock Cook urged some students to delay: "Applying next year is a pretty good option, really. They are going to be in a more difficult tuition-fee regime but there is some really good information about the new tuition-fees regime. You could see it as a more affordable regime than the present, even though you may be paying back over a longer time." Students will not have to pay back their fees until they are earning over £21,000, although interest will be accrued on the debt.
She added that, of the 210,000 who missed out last year, 97,000 received offers but declined to take them up. Around 83,000 re-applied this year. "That left 113,000 who had no offer or did not specify an offer," she said.
Next year, there would be 2 to 3 per cent fewer 18-year-olds, she said, and she pointed out that the number of apprenticeships had increased to 100,000. She said Ucas was in the middle of a review of the admissions system which should be published in the autumn. One option would be to move to a system where students applied to university only after their A-level results. This was advocated at the weekend by Professor Alan Smithers from Buckingham University. Figures obtained by The Independent show more than 12,000 candidates expecting to get A* grades are being rejected by Oxbridge this year.
Ms Curnock Cook added that Ucas had "more than doubled" its telephone service to cope with the rush on A-level results day – 18 August – so it could have 150 people on the telephone at any one time.
Missed out: 209,253
Missed out: 158,006
Missed out: 132,062