Students face toughest ever battle to get into top universities

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The Independent Online

A surge in applications this year means Britain's brightest A-level students face the toughest competition ever to get into the university of their choice.

At Durham University, for instance, 2,000 people applied for 130 places on its law course. At St Andrew's in Scotland - one of the 18 research institutions to be part of the elite Russell Group - at least 10 candidates applied for every place.

The scramble for places - due to be stepped up tomorrow when the A-level results are announced - follows a rush by youngsters to avoid paying top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year from next September.

It coincides with a warning from a former Labour higher education minister that students will in future be facing fees of up to £12,000 a year at Britain's top universities.

Baroness Blackstone, who was in charge of universities in Labour's first administration in 1997 and is now vice-chancellor of Greenwich University, said in an interview with The Independent that the cap of £3,000 a year would eventually be lifted to allow for a free-for-all. As a result, she warned, top research institutions would charge "three or four times as much" as some of their rivals with a resulting gap in the quality of provision between institutions.

The scramble coincided, too, with a robust defence of the rise in the A-level pass rate due to be delivered by the Schools minister, Andrew Adonis, this morning.

He will tell an audience of talented youngsters and trainee teachers in Canterbury that it would be "a major cause for concern" if standards did not rise.

He will argue that Ofsted, the education standards watchdog, has revealed that the percentage of good or excellent lessons seen by inspectors has risen from 45 per cent in primary schools in 1997 to 72 per cent and from 59 per cent to 72 per cent in secondary schools.

"Teaching and leadership in schools are significantly improving so we should expect exam results to improve, too," he will say in an attack on critics who say the standard of the A-level exam has been "dumbed down".

Meanwhile, The Independent's survey of universities has shown that some will be cutting the number of places offered through the clearing system this year as a result of more youngsters expecting to get the grades predicted of them this year. These include Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Durham. Oxford and Cambridge universities estimated they would be turning away around 10,000 students with three straight A-grade passes this summer.

Nationally, applications have risen by 8.2 per cent but in some universities (Aston and City University, London) this figure has been as high as 29 per cent.

Meanwhile, in her interview with The Independent, Baroness Blackstone said lifting the cap on top-up fees would leave Russell Group members free to charge "three or four times the amount of some of the former polytechnics and newer universities". The gap in fees would bring with it the danger of a two-tier university system, she argued.

She said she had been opposed to top-up fees, adding: "I would have preferred to have stayed with a regulated fee in which all universities were basically charging the same amount. If some institutions are able to charge a great deal more, I worry that the fee income will mean there is a gap in terms of facilities and quality of teaching between them and other universities.

"I want to see all youngsters having the same opportunities but I fear that will go out with the bath-water if the differential becomes that great."

She predicted ministers would delay lifting the cap on fees until after 2009 - when the maximum charge can be reviewed - because of opposition from backbench Labour MPs. However, she was adamant it would eventually be lifted.

Meanwhile, the Royal Society warned that the fall in students taking A-levels in science and maths must be halted. Lord May of Oxford, its president, said: "We risk losing not only the next generation of highly skilled scientists, technologists and engineers but also the teachers to train those that come after them."