Record numbers fail to get places at university

100,000 students could miss out on college places; GCSEs to be revamped and toughened up
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More than 100,000 would-be students will be left without a university to go to after more than 500,000 applications were received for approximately 390,000 places. Gap year organisations are braced for a surge in applications for years abroad as students reassess their plans.

The latest official figures from Ucas revealed that applicants had topped the half a million mark for the first time. Nationally, 319,777 students have now found a place, while 69,067 are still waiting to see if their grades will be accepted. A further 107,762 students are trying to find a place through clearing - a record. Only 390,000 people are expected to find a place, leaving about 110,000 students without a place.

Several top universities have already closed their doors. Birmingham University, one of the 18 elite Russell Group institutions, filled all its places by Friday afternoon and the University of Manchester said it was "virtually full".

The National Union of Students (NUS) blamed the rise in applications on the imminent implementation of top-up fees. From next September, universities will be able to charge students up to £3,000 a year. Currently, students are charged a maximum of £1,150 a year, although this is means-tested, with students from poorer families paying nothing.

Julian Nicholds, vice-president education of the NUS, said: "We have said all along that the top-up fee regime will force many students to make choices based on cost rather than aspiration or suitability, and this may be the first indication of such a trend.

"Even more worrying is the very real possibility that those who have been unable to secure places through clearing this week may now dismiss higher education altogether, simply because of their concerns about the increased debt 2006 may represent for them."

It is not just the elite, red-brick universities that are already full. Several of the so-called new universities - former polytechnics - are also turning candidates away.

A spokeswoman for Ucas said that its website was receiving seven hits a second as students searched for up-to-date information.