Pupils face fight for university places despite £6bn cash deal

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The Independent Online

Thousands of successful A-level candidates will face disappointment in their search for a university place this summer despite a £6bn deal for Britain's universities.

Sir Howard Newby, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) announced yesterday that this year's university funding round will give universities £6.3bn, a rise of 3.1 per cent in real terms. But he acknowledged that competition among pupils hoping to be accepted on a traditional three-year degree course would be fiercer this year because of a rise in the A-level pass rate and an increase in the number of school-leavers.

This year's sixth-formers will also face increased competition from students from EU countries, applications from whom have risen by 56 per cent to 12,280. The gloomy prognosis for sixth-formers makes it unlikely that Tony Blair will achieve his goal of getting 50 per cent of school-leavers into university by 2010.

This year's funding settlement will provide 26,000 extra places. But most will be on shorter foundation degree courses designed for students with vocational qualifications.

There are only 5,300 new places on traditional degree places, a rise of 1.3 per cent, while there has been an increase of 21,550, or 8 per cent, in the number of under 21s applying to university. Of the 5,300 new places, 1,500 are reserved for medical schools and 170 for dentistry. Universities will also face a financial squeeze if they go above the settlement and try to recruit extra students this year from those wanting to forgo the popular "gap year" and start their courses before top-up fees of up to £3,000 come into force in 2006. HEFCE says they may face a cut in their grant next year if they over-recruit.

Ministers are in a Catch-22 situation because they are abolishing up-front tuition fees to soften the blow of the new charging regime.

As a result, they face a three-year wait before the first repayments come in via loan repayments and therefore cannot fund the massive expansion necessary to meet the demand for places.

"We can expect to see something like around 30,000 extra students [including part-timers] and that can keep us on track with the 50 per cent target," said Sir Howard. But on today's figures, the participation rate would rise from its present level of 44 per cent to 45.5 per cent by the end of 2008 ­ well short of the 50 per cent target.

There are 30,000 EU students in universities in the UK ­ "about the equivalent of two large universities", according to Sir Howard. EU students are given the same treatment as domestic students and escape the full cost fees of up to £15,000 that can be demanded of students from outside the EU.