Hotline besieged as pupils battle for last places at universities

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The mad scramble for university places began in earnest at one minute past midnight yesterday morning. That was the time the university clearing hotline service set up by Ucas, the university and colleges admissions service, went online.

Within an hour, 64,000 bleary-eyed would-be students had sifted through the information available to see what courses would be on offer if they had to go through the clearing system. It was a massive rise on the previous year's figure of 46,000 - and shows just how much pressure there is on this year's intake of students to find a university place.

As one educationalist put it: "They comfortably outnumbered the number who were queuing for Test match tickets at Old Trafford on Monday morning."

The figures show an 8.2 per cent rise in the number of university applications this summer - bringing the total number to more than 480,000 for the first time. Many of these are thought to have been the result of students trying to avoid having to pay top-up fees - up to £3,000 a year - which will be charged by universities from September next year.

By the time the A-level results came out, it was obvious that the predictions were correct - a record number of youngsters had obtained the necessary grades to take up provisional places offered to them by universities. Ucas confirmed yesterday that 295,443 applicants had been accepted - an increase of 28,001 (10.47 per cent) in comparison with 267,442 at the same time in 2004. Tens of thousands of letters have already been sent out by universities confirming offers of places. For some students, these arrived before they got their results from their school - because universities had prior knowledge of the grades they had been awarded.

Yesterday Ucas said there were still 37,770 courses available to students who had not yet confirmed a university place - many of whom have offers of more than one place. A total of 99,609 applicants are eligible to apply for these courses.

A spokesman for Ucas said if applicants were prepared to be flexible, they still had a good chance of finding a place.

The most sought-after places were in law, economics, psychology and medicine. Modern languages did not figure in the top 20. Yesterday's A-level results showed that traditional language subjects like French and German were in decline or "free fall", as David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, put it.

The number of French candidates has virtually halved in the past 11 years to just over 15,000.

Anthony McClaran, chief executive of Ucas, said: "I want to congratulate all those students for whom today represents the reward for all their efforts and hard work. For those who are disappointed with their grades, Ucas is working hard to find them places in higher education." *Today's Independent is the only national newspaper to provide the official listing of every course available through the Ucas clearing system.