Students scramble for university places

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The Independent Online

More than 140,000 A-level hopefuls were scrabbling for fewer than 10,000 vacancies tonight in their search for a university place.

By this morning over half the available places through the clearing system had already been snapped up. They were being filled at more than twice the rate of last year, with just over 12,300 of the estimated 22,000 already taken. This compared with only 4,700 going in the four-day period following the publication of A-level results last year.

The “house full” sign was already in force in at least a dozen universities. Others said they had only a handful of places left. Gloucester said it had filled all its places before the September registration period for the first time ever.

There were fears that the flood of applicants – 611,000 students have applied for places this year, which is 10 per cent higher than in 2008 – could lead to more youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds being turned away this year.

Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, said: “I have a real fear that when numbers are published later, the number of pupils from state schools will have fallen.

“We remain concerned that, despite passing their A-levels, many university applicants will still be disappointed.”

Michael Gove, the Conservatives’ education spokesman, said: “The fortunate few are pulling ever further away from the rest and this phenomenon appears to be gathering pace rather than slowing down.”

However, Schools Minister Iain Wright said the Government had widened the pool of students doing A-levels and going to university.

A spokesman for Aston University said: “The process was definitely busier and quicker than last year.” It had 100 extra places on offer this year as a result of the Government’s scheme to encourage more youngsters to take up maths and science subjects but they have all been snapped up.

If clearing vacancies continue to be filled at their present rate they could all be gone by the end of the week – again a record time for the end of the clearing system.

UCAS, the university admissions service, said that not all of the 141,000 candidates on its clearing books were still searching for a university place.

Some may have decided to have a gap year and try again in 2010. These include students with as many as four straight A grade passes who – because of the increased competition this year with record numbers of A grades (26 per cent) being awarded – failed to get a single provisional offer of a place.

Since 2002, the number of A grades in the independent sector has increased by 44 per cent and it has gone up by 60 per cent in the state sector.

Others, international students, may be seeking places in other countries, such as at Harvard in the United States.

The best estimate from experts is that around 60,000 candidates still actively pursuing a university place will be disappointed. This is the largest number ever to face rejection.

Anthony McClaran, chief executive of UCAS, said that this year’s clearing would be more pressured than in previous years. However he added that he expected any student with two As and a B in their A-levels would be able to get a place somewhere.

Yesterday’s figures from UCAS also showed a record number of youngsters had accepted university places by yesterday – 401,310 compared with 361,760 in the same four-day period after the publication of A-level results last year.

The elite Russell Group of universities – which includes Oxford and Cambridge – are less likely to believe the Government’s flagship new diplomas are “adequate preparation” for higher education than the rest of the sector, according to new research published yesterday.

The research, commissioned from the National Foundation for Education Research by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, says the country’s former polytechnics and teaching-led universities are more likely to back the qualification than the research intensive Russell Group universities.