Record numbers of A-level candidates snapped up university places within hours of receiving their results yesterday – leaving 135,000 would-be students chasing a fast-dwindling number of clearing places.
Last night, it was predicted that most of the 22,000 clearing places on offer have already been taken, with one university, Bath Spa, saying that it had stopped taking calls for the 75 to 100 places it was offering.
Figures show that a total of 371,016 candidates confirmed their university places yesterday morning on receipt of their results, up from 336,057 last August.
UCAS, the university admissions service, said it was awaiting the outcome of a further 96,806 candidates who had offers pending.
This year, for the first time, those students who achieve higher grades than they expected will have any provisional offer held open for them for five days in case they want to try their luck with another university.
The new measure was introduced by UCAS because it was felt that sixth-formers, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, were less inclined to apply for places at the country's more elite universities until they had their passes in their hands.
However, this still left a total of 135,114 applicants eligible for a clearing place – with only 22,000 places to choose from.
In reality, it is unlikely that the entire 135,000 will pursue a university. Some will have decided to take a gap year, while others from overseas may have made a speculative offer while pursuing alternatives abroad – such as high-ranking universities in the United States such as Harvard.
The estimate that academic experts frequently come up with is that around 60,000 serious applicants will be disappointed this summer.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said last night: "It will be little short of a tragedy if all the hard work by this year's students is unrewarded by a place in higher education or a job.
"It seems particularly cruel to raise expectations and then dash them by failing to provide enough places in higher education for UK students.
"The Government will need to do more to support those who don't manage to get a university place this year."
By last night, 6,219 people had withdrawn their applications. UCAS pointed out that more than 60 per cent of the applicants had now signed up for the course of their choice, "meaning more people than ever have the reassurance that they know what their future holds".
Anthony McClaran, chief executive of UCAS, said: "For those people who haven't secured a place, universities and colleges across the country are waiting to take their calls.
He added: "Clearing is very competitive," but stressed that the places for all the youngsters who received provisional offers and got the necessary grades would be honoured.
The Higher Education minister, David Lammy, commented: "Those students who don't get the grades they need shouldn't panic, as there's a broad range of options open to them, including clearing, reapplying for next year or seeking work experience or training."