Tens of thousands of A-level candidates will today join the biggest scramble for university places ever witnessed in the UK.
Even those candidates with two As and a B will struggle to secure a place for September.
The results, to be received by 250,000 young people across the UK, are expected to show another rise in the number of A grade passes – from 25.9 per cent last year to 26.5 per cent in 2009.
Yet many thousands will miss out on university as a result of record applications (up 10 per cent to just over 600,000 this year) and a squeeze on available places (with only up to 13,000 extra places being provided).
The mad tussle – the most competitive ever as the number of places in clearing is also being reduced – has been blamed on the Government.
"Thousands of talented students who narrowly miss out on the grades they need will face heartbreak in the scramble for the few clearing places available," said the Liberal Democrats' universities spokesman, Stephen Williams.
"This will be the toughest year for places and it looks like huge numbers of very able young people will be joining the record numbers already unemployed.
"It will be particularly difficult for those applying for arts subjects who won't benefit from the extra science places announced earlier this year."
Ministers have announced that 10,000 of the extra places are available for maths and science students – where more graduates are needed.
However, they have failed to supply any extra funding for teaching costs, forcing some universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, to close the door to extra places on the grounds that it would weaken the quality of education on offer.
The shadow Universities Secretary, David Willetts, said: "Tens of thousands of young people who expected to go to university this year will be disappointed and ministers are to blame.
"Gordon Brown's talk of investment for the future is of little comfort to the record – and growing – number of young people not in education, employment or training."
Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the university admissions service UCAS, warned that candidates hoping to use the clearing process would have to be quick. He said that whereas universities had in the past been able to squeeze in candidates who just failed to make the grades demanded in provisional offers, this year they will not be able to.
But he said he expected that those with two As and a B would be able to secure a place through clearing.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "Every student who gets the grades they need will be going to university this summer. "There will be places available in clearing but this year we have seen unprecedented demand which will mean that there is significant competition for a few unfilled places – but entry has always been a competitive process in which we must aim to retain those with the best potential."
Today's scramble for places has placed the spotlight on part-time courses and distance learning. The Open University, traditionally thought of as being the route for more mature students, is already recording increases in the number of school-leavers applying for places.
One of the leading providers of distance learning courses, Resource Development International (RDI), which runs courses at nine universities, has seen the percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds on its courses rise 20 per centage points in the past year to 17 per cent of the total.
Dr Philip Hallam, its chief executive, said: "We have seen applications to our course ... significantly increase over the past year. Cost is definitely a major factor in student decisions and many seem to prefer to remain debt-free by studying online."
UCAS is offering all clearing applicants for the first time the chance to view details of all the part-time higher education courses available online.
Businesses, too, are moving in to sweep up some of today's disappointed A-level candidates. Despite the recession, some are offering more internships – whereby students sign up for a three-year indentureship or learn on the job.
Exact figures for the number of disappointed candidates are hard to come by at present. However, with record numbers likely to have university places confirmed this morning because they have obtained the necessary grades, there are likely to be well over 130,000 would-be candidates eligible for clearing – and around 22,000 places available.
However, many of the candidates – particularly from overseas – may have put in speculative applications while also seeking places at top international universities such as Harvard in the United States. In addition, many UK applicants may already have decided to take a gap year. Figures show that gap year take-up has soared by as much as 20 percentage points over the past year to approaching 200,000. Experts are predicting there will be around 60,000 home-grown candidates actively seeking a place who will be disappointed.
The Schools minister, Iain Wright, spoke out against Conservative claims that there were "hard" and "soft" A-level subjects. He said: "This criticism is an insult to the many young people, teachers and parents who have worked hard or supported those who have taken exams.
"It is a sign of a thriving education system that we have more young people taking A-levels and going on to university," he added. "Higher education should not be the preserve of an elite or privileged few but for anybody with the required skills, ambition and qualifications."
The Conservatives had proposed giving more weight to traditional academic subjects like maths and physics in exam league tables – encouraging students to ditch subjects like media studies not so valued by elite universities.
Meanwhile, one university, Bradford, announced last night that it intended to make almost 200 extra places available this autumn. Courses to be expanded include engineering, maths, economics and chemistry.
Extra places announced by ministers for maths and science students – where more graduates are needed.
Decision day: Four students who had to start again
Surf school was my salvation
Will Hinton left university after the end of his first year because of a love of surfing.
"I only went to university because it was drummed into me at school," he said. "Leaving university is the best decision I've ever made though. I don't regret it for one minute."
Because of his passion for surfing and travel, university was a big disappointment. During his time at Bournemouth University, Will and a strong group of friends would travel down to Newquay in Cornwall to sample the surf.
He made friends with the manager of a local hotel, with whom he is now in business running the Escape Surf School. Will, 26, hopes to open more centres across the country in the coming years with a view to branching out internationally.
"There are so many opportunities out there so there is no point doing something that doesn't really make you happy," he said.
An armour-plated choice of career
Fred Ryall, 18, reckoned no course could teach him more than he already knew for his chosen career – making medieval armour.
"There was a blacksmithing course at the Herefordshire College of Technology so I went along and had a look," he said. "But I found it was geared towards ornate iron work rather than what I do, which is essentially tin work. My mum and I agreed I would probably end up teaching the others what I do which wasn't really the point."
Fred, from Birkenhead, started to develop the skills needed to run his armour business from the age of 15. He is now the boss of Ryall Armouries, bespoke tailors of 15th-century replica armour for battle re-enactors.
Running a business beats debt
Gavin Edley, 22, recently graduated from the Open University. He applied after finishing his A-levels so that he could set up his own business while studying for a degree, thus avoiding student debt.
"I knew I wanted to set up my own business when I left school," he said. Two years ago he set up Midas Copy, a copywriting agency that provides promotional literature for magazines, while studying for his BA in business. "Studying and running a business at the same time can be quite demanding and it slowed the progress of the business – but I don't regret it." He is now intending to study for an MBA.
Gap-year beckons after rejection from Oxbridge
Daniel Oppenheimer, 18, is one of the 12,000 or so candidates predicted to obtain at least three straight A grades but who has been rejected by Oxford and Cambridge. He had applied to study at Wadham College after being predicted top grades in maths, physics, English and history and was "slightly shocked" to not get an offer. But the student at Graveney secondary school, in Tooting, south-west London, plans to reapply after taking a gap year.
On other pages
Why change is needed Editorial, page 26
The perfect storm
Bahram Bekhradnia, page 29