Thousands of teenagers failed to win their university places yesterday, after they were unable to achieve the grades demanded. Ucas, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, revealed a sharp 26,000 drop in the number of A-level candidates able to meet their conditional offers.
Admissions officers said the main reason was that many had not achieved the grades necessary to take up conditional offers as a result of the 0.4 percentage point fall in the proportion of A-grades awarded this year. Exam boards are bracing for a flood of appeals against grades. Figures from Ucas showed that a total of 357,915 applications had been accepted by a university or college yesterday – compared with 384,649 at the same time last year.
That left more than 250,000 applicants still seeking a place, with the clearing system showing that only 25,000 courses at UK universities still had places to offer.
"Despite the fall in applications this year, entry to higher education remains competitive and we expect to see an active clearing period," said Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas.
Around 120,000 young people would still be without a place at the end of the day despite the trebling of tuition fees to up to £9,000 a year for the first time, student leaders predicted.
This year has seen a total of 629,140 university applications – down by 52,453 on 2011. The number of university places has also decreased by around 15,000, down from 480,000.
Last night it was looking as if some students who missed out on their conditional offers at elite Russell Group universities were still being offered their places.
Those offered a place dependent upon three straight-A grades, in particular, were finding they could squeeze in with two As and a B.
The Government has changed the student funding system to allow universities to expand if they take on AAB students.
Not all universities are planning to take advantage of the opportunity to expand, though, with Oxford and Cambridge, notably, expecting to recruit the same number of students as last year.
Dr Wendy Piatt, director of the Russell Group, said: "Our leading universities will not decide en masse to expand at the first opportunity but some with the capacity and demand are now choosing to recruit more students.
"Universities need to balance expansion with ensuring they can still provide the first-rate student experience that being a research-intensive university offers."
The Universities minister, David Willetts, yesterday said that the number of students going into higher education would be broadly comparable to previous years.
"There is a long-term trend for more and more people to aspire to go to university and for more and more employers to look to employ people with higher education qualifications and I personally don't think, taking the long view, that trend has suddenly stopped," he told BBC Radio 4.
"What we are seeing at the moment is there has actually been a slight decline in the number of 18-year-olds – there is a slight shrinkage in the size of that cohort – so what we are doing is we are maintaining university places broadly flat."
However, Rachel Wenstone, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said more students faced an "anxious wait" over their places as a result of the reduction in student places.
"The hundreds of thousands of students who have received their A-level results today should be unreservedly congratulated for their hard work but ministers have not made their lives any easier," she added.
A-level case studies
'I don't know if I will be able to study to become a doctor'
Rebecca Bates, from Grantham, Leicestershire
Rebecca waited all day to hear from her second-choice university after being rejected by her first choice. She missed the grade by five marks.
"I have gone through clearing to get a place studying chemistry at Newcastle but I won't be able to take it until St George's, which was my insurance option to study medicine, formally responds.
"I have been refreshing the computer every few minutes for hours. It is hard to see my friends planning where they are going when I still do not know. It makes it difficult to plan anything. It also makes everything that little bit scarier; I thought I was going to London, even after King's College rejected me. Now, I don't know if I have to go to Newcastle or not. Nor do I know if I will be able to study to be a doctor. I applied firstly to study medicine, but at Newcastle I am doing chemistry."
'These results give me the hope of swimming in the Rio Paralympics'
Jess Harper, 18, from London
The delighted swimmer has achieved grades that she hopes could lead to a place in the Paralympics at Rio 2016.
With straight As, she will now take up a place at Brown University in Rhode Island, in the United States, where she will compete in disability swimming events.
She said: "They've got a great swimming programme over there and the coaches are really brilliant.
"I'm hoping that will give me the boost I need to make it for 2016."
The Putney High School pupil, whose lower left arm failed to develop before she was born, is ranked No 19 in the world in the 100m butterfly.
Jess squeezed in her schoolwork for English, French, Spanish and history along with nine training sessions a week.
"It is a challenge. It means I have to be really organised. I'm waking up early and going to bed late," she said.
When asked whether she preferred academic work or swimming, Jess replied: "At some points they were both equally gruelling, but it has to be swimming."
At Putney High School, south-west London, some 63 per cent of all A-level entries achieved A* or A grades.
'I was expecting higher grades than I got but you can't win them all'
Jack Whitsey, Chesterfield
Jack Whitsey, who got a C in government and politics and Ds in biology and psychology, had not heard whether or not his grades will be good enough to get him into his first-choice university.
He said: "I have been accepted into my insurance option so, at the moment, it looks like I am going to Northampton to study biology. I will have to pay £8,500 to £9,000.
"My first choice was the University of Kent. I would have been happy paying the same price to go to a more prestigious university like Kent. I am now looking at paying that to go to a lower-ranked university. But they are all going to charge the price they can get and we can't change it, so I will just do my best.
"It is unfortunate how much we are going to have to pay out but the conditions in which you pay it back are fine. It is about 4 per cent of the monthly wage but it is quite a lot of money to have to pay out.
"It is fair that if you have got the grades, you get a better place for your money. I was expecting a little higher than what I got but you can't win them all."
Q&A: Getting in to university
Q. My daughter got AAB – not good enough to take up her provisional offer. Should she despair of getting into a Russell Group university?
A. No, not necessarily, there were tales of students in similar positions still being offered their places yesterday. The Government's decision to allow universities to expand student numbers provided they take in AAB students means that they have every likelihood of getting a place at one of the more selective universities.
Q. So who is likely to miss out?
A. Those who obtain ABB and below may find it harder to obtain a place. However, middle-ranking universities, who failed to attract enough top-tier students, may make extra places available.
Q. Will clearing be quieter this year because of the fall in applications?
A. Emphatically not. If anything, it will be busier. Last year record numbers of places were snapped up on results day. There was, therefore, little availability during clearing. This year as fewer students met their offers, more places are vacant.