Universities struggle to fill places as thousands of students are put off by £3,000 top-up fees

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The Independent Online

Fewer students are likely to go to university this autumn despite a record year for A-level results, prompting fears that new "top-up" fees have put young people off higher education.

This year's A-level results, which saw nearly one in four entries awarded an A grade, has failed to produce the expected late surge in university applications, official figures confirmed.

Yesterday, 301,074 students had confirmed their places - a drop of nearly 3 per cent on last year, figures from the Universities and Colleges Admission Service (Ucas) revealed. At this point last year, 309,777 students had confirmed their places.

This year's students will be the first to pay new fees of up to £3,000 a year rather than the current annual flat rate of £1,175.

Last year saw a record number of students go to university as applicants rushed to avoid top-up fees. Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, said it was "extremely sad" that the fees appeared to be stopping youngsters from going on to university.

"The evidence keeps stacking up: top-up fees deter young people," Ms Teather said. "It's extremely sad to think that there are intelligent young people out there who achieved good grades yesterday but won't be applying to university because of the cost. The Government isn't taking seriously the impact of their tuition fees policy on the decisions young people are taking that will affect the rest of their lives. School leavers opting to study for a degree face an unprecedented burden of debt which is going to affect their ability to buy homes, start families and save for old age."

Gemma Tumelty, the president of the National Union of Students, said it was no surprise that fear of debt was putting many students off university. "This time last year we saw a real rush of last-minute applications, but this year it doesn't look as if the same surge will be seen," she said.

"Unfortunately therefore, it would appear that the drop in applications for university this year may not be reversed. Whilst this is disappointing, it sadly comes as no surprise."

She added: "With a recent survey suggesting that prospective students expect a degree to cost £33,512, it is no surprise if some students are put off."

There are still vacancies on nearly 37,400 university courses listed on the Ucas Clearing vacancy service. Just over 3,000 students found places in the first 24 hours of Clearing, the service which matches students with suitable courses. Since the service opened online just after midnight on Thursday there have been more than half a million searches for courses. The top five subjects were law, psychology, economics, English and medicine. There were no science subjects in the top 20.

This year, there were 96,257 applicants eligible for Clearing, compared with 99,609 last year, although only half are thoughtto be seeking a place.

Last year, 37,197 students found their place through Clearing. About a quarter of students who do not find a place re-apply the following year, some after resitting examinations. However, some will give up.

Opponents of the top-up fee regime had predicted that student numbers would fall, particularly among young people from poorer backgrounds.

In February, figures from Ucas had shown that the number of people applying to university has fallen for the first time in six years. Almost 13,000 fewer people applied by 15 January this year, a drop of 3.4 per cent. Among English students applying to universities in England - the group most affected by fees - applications fell 4.5 per cent. Applications to Scottish and Welsh universities, which are not affected, rose slightly.

Although critics of fees predicted poorer students would be hit hardest, the Ucas figures reveal the decrease was similar across different social groups.

Alma Dimitriu, 18: Romanian girl makes case for EU expansion

By Arifa Akbar

A Romanian student achieved outstanding A-level results despite speaking minimal English when she arrived in Britain five years ago. Alma Dimitriu, 18, from Manchester, will study medicine after achieving three As and a B.

Ms Dimitriu grew up in Transylvania before her mother took up a post at Manchester Metropolitan University in 2001. She went to St Peter's High School before taking GCSEs at Loreto College, in Moss Side. Staff at Loreto were so impressed she represented the college at Buckingham Palace in February, when she met the Queen.

She said she found the British education system difficult but said she was well supported. "I went to the same lessons as everyone else and it was hard at first but people were very helpful," she said. She will study at St Andrews, in Scotland.

Students at Loreto College enjoyed a 99 per cent pass rate and five will study at Oxford or Cambridge.

Many live in deprived areas in Manchester. Ann Clynch, the principal of the school, said she was proud of the hard work put in by staff and students, which had produced such success.

Christian Bola, 18: Star pupil still faces deportation to Congo

By Sadie Gray

After receiving top marks in his A-levels after only a year at school in Britain, Christian Bola was left with mixed emotions.

Mr Bola, 18, hopes to study engineering at university after gaining three A grades, but faces deportation back to the Democratic Republic of Congo after the Home Office refused his application for asylum. He is appealing against the decision.

Studying maths, physics and French, he passed 16 modules in a year but cannot apply to universities because he does not have a national insurance number.

Christian came to the United Kingdom in 2003 after he was arrested and his parents killed. The attacks were carried out by government-backed militia who suspected his father of involvement in the murder of president Laurent Kabila.

A guard helped him escape and he sought help from his pastor, who put him on a plane to Heathrow.

He was housed by Edmonton council while his case for asylum was assessed, and after a spell at a local college was accepted by Latymers, a grammar school.

He was not deported because he was a minor, but having turned 18 he faces being sent back to Kinshasa.

If he is allowed to stay, Mr Bola, who wants to become an engineer in the RAF, hopes to spend a gap year amassing work experience.