Education: Your Choice: Why the numbers add up to trouble: Sweeping changes in admission rules have left both university applicants and selectors scratching their heads, says Anne Daniel

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The Independent Online
It has been a difficult year in university admissions. An unhappy conjunction of the new system with narrow targets for universities on numbers admitted has meant delay, uncertainty and doubt for all.

It was always clear that the new UCAS system would mean challenges for both applicants and selectors. One admissions officer says: 'The whole of the ground rules have changed. If anyone else says they are enormously sure of what is happening, be wary.' Candidates have had to decide how to balance the choices on their UCAS form. Up to eight choices are allowed: will more give a better chance, or will fewer demonstrate more commitment to course and institution? What about consistency: with the best will in the world, will universities be fair to those who are seen to be using them as a long stop?

Candidates made an average of 6.7 applications each, generally spread across institutions of different types, making offers at different levels. Tony Higgins, UCAS chief executive for corporate says: 'In spite of some fears, the new institutions have not lost out. Some are getting large numbers of applicants. The big winners have been the colleges of higher education, the two newest universities, Luton and Derby, the former London polytechnics, and some old, prestigious universities. There has been a big expansion to those asking high or low grades; to those in the middle there has not.'

However, large numbers of candidates are a mixed blessing. Hugh White, assistant faculty tutor for life sciences at University College London says: 'We had a 27 per cent increase in applications to the faculty, and in some subjects as much as 158 per cent and 215 per cent. It has caused considerable problems and enormous paperwork with our labour-intensive system. We have interviewed many more applicants because it seemed unfair not to, but whether we shall have a numbers disaster in August we don't know.'

Other universities highlight another dimension of the problem. Some candidates have taken the opportunity to abandon the tactics of caution that have prevailed for several years to apply to five or six or more of the most popular and prestigious universities in the country.

Peter Lee, admissions officer at Exeter, says: 'Under this new system, we do not know what 'brand loyalty' there is to our institution, or what return we will get on our offers. Yet the numbers game has more resource implications than ever before.'

Put simply, universities suffer financially if they admit too many students or too few. All the uncertainties thrown up by the new system and applicant behaviour mean that the narrow targets set by the funding councils will be difficult to hit. But an added complication for both the universities and applicants has been that the decisions on funding targets were not known until the admissions cycle was well under way.

There have been several practical effects on candidates. In some cases, decisions have been late in coming, although UCAS maintains that the overall pace of offers has been similar to last year. Some universities' fears of over-shooting their targets may have resulted in latecomers receiving fewer or higher offers, a blunt instrument for gaining more control over the situation.

In the case of Oxford, targets were only known after the admissions cycle had been completed. Anticipating cuts, Oxford colleges held their numbers only to find that they could have increased them. So there are undoubtedly applicants who could have had an Oxford place - but don't.

On one point, everyone agrees: replies from candidates have been, as Mr Higgins says, 'way, way, way behind last year. We assume that candidates have been keeping decisions until the last minute to see how the wind blows'.

The initial signs are that candidates are accepting a high offer and a low one. 'If this is so, we may see many more getting places through their conditional offer than previously. Clearing could be very light.'

But imponderables cast a long shadow. One university spokesman says: 'We have had to decide how to manage the cut, and shall be tackling it entirely in confirmation and clearing. My guess is that precious few who miss their grades will get in, though it will vary from subject to subject. Of course, if not as many as expected take up our offers, the pressure's off.'

Other universities have responded differently. 'Those who have been cautious in their offers can be generous in August,' says another spokesman. 'Before going to clearing we would look very carefully at those who have stuck with us but narrowly missed their grades.'