Education: Hit and miss in the admissions system: Today A-level results come out. Fran Abrams and Karen Gold report on a testing time for those allocating university places

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The Independent Online
Dr Steve Giles looked worried. It was Tuesday morning, 24 hours after universities had received the A-level results, and the senior lecturer in German at Nottingham University was staring at a pile of application forms. A quick tally revealed a problem - 27 successful candidates for French and German, and only 16 places.

'I think my colleagues will be in a state of dread. We certainly didn't intend to overshoot because all the calculations for the size of our teaching groups are based on hitting the target,' he said.

The university is legally bound to accept all the candidates who have accepted a conditional offer and achieved the right grades - one institution was successfully sued by a disappointed student last year after it failed to do so.

However, when the phones begin to ring in the arts faculty office at 9am today, almost every inquirer will be turned away. Students who have a conditional offer and have only just missed their grades may possibly be accepted if they can show that their failure was due to illness or death in the family. Even then, they may be told to come back next year.

All universities receive A-level results before the candidates to allow them to make early decisions about whom to take, but there was little room for manoeuvre at Nottingham this year. Even those who needed three Cs and gained two As and a D were likely to be rejected because, technically, they had failed to meet the requirements of their offer.

Academics from different departments were dotted around the office, most bearing the same tense expressions as Dr Giles. Deidre Evans, secretary of the arts faculty, looked a little more relaxed, even though she had a total of 500 places and 560 successful applicants. About 30 were expected to drop out before term started, and the other 30 would just have to be accommodated.

Ms Evans had predicted this outcome two months ago, after seeing how many offers had been accepted, and warned the registrar. 'We made rather more offers this year on the assumption that having more university choices, they wouldn't take up so many. We ended up overshooting,' she said.

Nottingham has 17 times more applications than places, making it probably the most popular university in Britain, though others such as Oxford and Cambridge tend only to attract those who expect to get three or four A-grades.

Recent improvements in students' A-level grades, combined with increasing numbers applying to university, have led to an increase in the number of points needed to get on to a course. Ten years ago, an applicant wanting to read English would have needed two Bs. Now he or she would need an A, a B and a C.

Two factors led to an increase in pressure this year. The first is a new admissions system that includes both old and new universities, but which allows students to make up to eight choices. This makes it difficult for admissions officers to use their past experience to guess how many of their offers will be accepted.

The second factor is new government penalties for universities which over- or under-recruit by more than 1 per cent. Every student who is surplus to requirements, and every place that remains unfilled, will cost between pounds 750 and pounds 2,800, depending on whether it is in arts, science or medicine.

Graham Chandler, the registrar, has the unenviable task of deciding whether to cut places in science or engineering to make up for over-recruitment in arts, or whether to exceed the university's overall target and suffer the financial penalty.

The policy both of the university and the Government is to try to boost the numbers of students in science and engineering, which are traditionally less popular than the arts, so the decision is not an easy one. 'As well as wanting to keep the university in the right kind of balance, there is this additional anxiety about the financial implications. We do have a five- year plan, and I am reluctant to penalise our science and engineering intake in order to stick within the figures,' he said.

The view from the registry of Cardiff Institute of Higher Education, voiced by the academic registrar, Bea Cockroft, was equally uncertain. University entrance had never been so unpredictable. 'Everything is different this year and we have no idea what is going to happen,' she said.

Cardiff IHE, a solid but unglamorous institution, had 7,000 applications for its 1,700 places last year. This year, 16,000 people applied. The reason for the jump is the merger of the admissions systems. Sixth-formers who previously would not have heard of Cardiff IHE found its courses listed in the same booklet as those of Bristol and Durham universities. They found its A-level grade entry requirements were lower. And just to be safe, they applied in droves.

At Nottingham, which is nearer the top of the pecking order, applications have risen by 10 per cent. Although not such a dramatic increase as that at Cardiff, it has still made life difficult for admissions officers.

The pattern seems to be that with choices cut from four to two - previously applicants could hold two offers in each system, four in total - many youngsters went for a top-notch university as their first or 'firm' choice, and a safe bet, a banker, for their 'insurance' offer.

The result is that even though the same number of applicants are competing for the same number of university places as last year, the distribution has gone awry. The elite universities will have no flexibility for those who miss the required A-level grades. Backwater colleges that normally dominate clearing may not appear there at all. And some quite prestigious universities in the middle are feeling distinctly neglected.

'The universities who aren't in the premier league but are in the next division down, the Sixties campus universities, have been squeezed quite badly this year,' explained an admissions officer who declined to be named.

'You are going to find some pretty surprising names with places left in clearing, taking students who have quite low grades.'

The nightmare admissions scenario, for colleges such as Cardiff and for the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) system as a whole, is if those middle-rank universities or their applicants try to buck the system. Take a fictitious student, needing A-level grades ABB for a place at a top-notch university. The student gets BBC. The top-notch university turns him down. The insurance offer he accepted of DDD from Bogshire college is easily met. But a well-known university is advertising vacancies for people with BBC. Is he going to ignore them? If he rings the university, will it ignore him?

'Schools have been saying, 'We will tell our people to break their commitments to their insurance offer if they have a good chance of somewhere else,' Tony Higgins, chief executive of Ucas, says. 'We have to say to them that if students and institutions start to play fast and loose, we will have a major problem and nobody will know where they are.'

(Photograph omitted)