Thousands of school-leavers will have to abandon thoughts of securing a university place this year, the head of the admissions service says today.
Instead, they should consider switching to taking up an apprenticeship, Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), said in an interview with The Independent. The move could be the start of a long-term policy of fewer university places, with ministers encouraging youngsters to put more emphasis on learning the skills industry needs to compete in the modern world.
This month will see an unprecedented scramble for university places, with added competition from 45,000 people who failed to find a university place last year and an unprecedented growth of 23.3 per cent in applications from the over-40s.
"There won't be an open-ended number of places so there will be disappointed applicants," said Ms Curnock Cook. "They may have to look at alternatives. These include re-applying next year, if that's the right thing for them, or taking up apprenticeships, which the Government is quite keen on. With the older students, it is about the recession and the pressure on them to get skills for jobs, or retraining if they're made redundant."
UCAS has received 660,953 applications this year, although the number of university places on offer is unlikely to rise from last year's high of 481,854. It looks as though around 180,000 youngsters are likely to be disappointed in their hunt for places this year.
Ms Curnock Cook said it was "very difficult to tell" whether there would be the same scramble for clearing places as there has been in past years. Last year, after initial predictions there would be fewer places to be had through clearing, a significant number of youngsters still got places.
Some universities took care to match more students with offers this year – while others may have offered fewer places in the expectation they would be able to wait for students' grades and still fill their places with talented candidates. In addition, more than 150,000 youngsters have already put in their applications to go to university in the autumn of 2011. However, in each year there were a number of candidates who did not take up their offers, which freed up places at some prestigious universities for some applicants.
UCAS is braced for a surge in queries about clearing on A-level results day. Last year there were 100 hits per second on its website; this year, more than 100 experienced staff will be on hand to deal with queries.
"They understand the kind of anxiety and stress that applicants are under and will be able to sympathise with them – and their parents," she added.
Anna Tonge: 'I was motivated because I knew what I wanted'
The mother-of-two is just one of thousands of mature students seeking to top up her qualification. Anna, 42, whose children are six and four, is studying web design at the Open University.
Her route back into education began with a short "return to learning" course earlier this year. It was aimed at encouraging people to go into science, engineering and technology, areas in which the Government wants more student recruitment.
Anna, from Cheltenham, found the transition quite easy. She last studied for a degree in electronics in 1989.
"I think I was very motivated to learn – probably more so than when I took my electronics degree – because I knew what I wanted to do," she said.
She believes the trend towards more mature students opting for university places is likely to continue. "I can see if you're 18 and you're from a not very well-off background, the horrendous debts you can get yourself into as a student could well put you off," she added."When you're 40 you might be more inclined [to seek a university place] especially if you've got some money."
The current economic climate could also prompt more people to seek new skills and qualifications later on in life. Anna wants eventually to do her freelance web design work from home during term time and school hours – leaving her free to be with her children during the holidays.
Exclusively in The Independent: Details of all places on offer via the university clearing system. From 19 AugustReuse content