Thousands of top-performing A-level candidates are today warned by the Universities minister that they should consider lowering their sights and applying for a less prestigious university next year.
More than 3,000 straight "A"-grade students are expected to be turned away by the institutions of their choice when the results of this year's exams are published. Overall, 200,000 of the 660,000 candidates who have applied to university face disappointment.
In an interview with The Independent, the Universities minister, David Willetts, said these students should not expect to get into their first-choice university next year either.
"Obviously I do accept, sadly, it does look as if there will be quite a number of young people who don't get a place," he said.
One option for disappointed youngsters with top-grade passes would be to "look at applying for slightly less competitive universities for next year", he said. "There have been cases of students with excellent A-levels who haven't got places."
His comments immediately provoked fury from lecturers' leaders.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "I am appalled that the Government is now telling hardworking A-level students to 'aim lower', not higher. Asking some pupils to aim lower does not solve the problem of thousands of them missing out on university places, it just changes who might miss out."
Mr Willetts' comments came as it emerged the scramble for university places was so tight this year that at least 17 institutions would have no places left to offer in clearing this year for A-level candidates.
These included Reading, which had 100 last year but could only offer overseas students places this year.
Other options canvassed by Mr Willetts would include going to a further education college and studying for a degree-level course.
The minister is keen to promote the idea that students could sign on at their local further education college and study for degree courses set by top universities. "Going away from home for three years to a residential university is not necessarily the right thing for everyone," he said.
Speaking against the background of a growing clamour for ministers to increase the number of university places on offer, Mr Willetts held out the prospect of more youngsters studying at the Open University. "It doesn't have the same challenges and restrictions [on student numbers] that are faced by other universities," he said. Last year, the number of 18- to 21-year-olds it had enrolled went up by 36 per cent to 1,810. For the first time, more than one in four students (17,255) were under 25.
In addition, Mr Willetts said the Government had provided funding for 50,000 extra apprenticeships this year – although earlier this week BT revealed that it had had 24,000 applications for 221 places.
He said he was in discussions with the University and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) to reach a deal over giving apprentices points for qualifications in the same way as A-levels, so they could then go on to university. "There are a range of options available. People are able to reapply. They should think how they can spend their year adding that bit to their cv, which would help their application – getting practical work experience or extra skills – anything that strengthens their chances next year."
Mr Willetts also mentioned the Government's review of student finance, being carried out by Lord Browne and expected to report in October. One of the options for the review is charging more interest on loans to cover fees – particularly for higher-earning graduates. Other alternatives are the graduate tax or a lifting of the cap on top-up fees – currently at £3,225 a year.
Mr Willetts repeated his assertion that graduates should make a bigger contribution towards their education.
However, he said that that "wasn't intended in a coded way to endorse the graduate tax", with him being "neither pro or against it".
"There are two ways in which graduates can contribute – either through increased fees or a tax, and Lord Browne will study both," he added.
Meanwhile, figures obtained by the Labour Party show the Government's decision to reduce the extra number of university places from 20,000 to 10,000 has had a disproportionate effect on youngsters from disadvantaged communities.
Eight of the institutions to be refused permission to offer extra places are among the top 20 for recruiting disadvantaged youngsters and 10 are among the top 20 for recruiting state school students.
Making the grade today
It may not seem like it but – back in the 1960s – those who applied to go to university had less chance of getting a place than youngsters today. In the late 1960s, there were around 100,000 applications so they had a 50 per cent chance of success. Today there are 660,000 applicants for around 480,000 places, so candidates have a 72 per cent chance of success.
Successful candidates did not have to aim so high in the 1960s, though. For instance, I was given the opportunity to read English at Essex University if I got a "B" and two "C"-grade passes in 1967.
Today, I would not have got in with those grades, as the minimum tariff is 300 points, or three "B" grades. In my time, though, 8 per cent of scripts got "A" grades. Last year it was 27.6 per cent.
Q&A: 'What can I do if my grades aren't good enough?'
Q. What happens if I just miss out on the grades I needed to snap up my university offer?
A. The first thing to say to you is: don't panic. It is worth calling the university to see if they will still accept you – there is a history of universities accepting students who have just missed out on their offer. If they will not take you on, then it's worth going through the clearing process. Last year, 47,000 students got places through it – higher than was being predicted before results day. It looks as though the numbers are going to be down this year but some universities say they will be advertising more than 100 places.
Q. But what if I fail to get a place through clearing?
A. You could try your local further education (FE) college. David Willetts, the Universities minister, is very keen to promote the idea that youngsters could study for a higher education degree set by a leading university at an FE college. They may not be as restricted in terms of student numbers as the universities. There are also open learning options through the Open University – where you could study and work at the same time – and institutions like Birkbeck College. Both report an increase in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolling for courses.
Q. What if I have flunked my exams altogether? Does that mean the end of my dreams of going to university?
A. If you have done less well than expected, it may be an idea to resit your exams to get better grades and improve your chances of going to university. After all, your teachers or the university that you applied to thought you were capable of doing better. It depends on how badly you have done, but if you were, say, offered a conditional place on getting three A grades, there are universities who would still accept you with three Bs.
Q. Wouldn't I be better forgetting about university altogether? With all this concentration in past years about encouraging people to go to university, is it still possible to get on in life if you don't go?
A. Perhaps you should address that question to Sir Richard Branson or – if he were still alive – Winston Churchill, neither of whom made a spectacular success of their exams.
On a more mundane level, you could try opting for an apprenticeship rather than go down the university route. For far too long, we have neglected the vocational route to getting qualifications – often the kind of qualifications employers are crying out for. As David Willetts reveals on this page, he wants to open up a university route for those who go on apprenticeships. Mr Willetts is negotiating with UCAS, the University and Colleges Admissions Service, to ensure apprentices earn point scores toward taking a degree course.