Who would want to be 18 today?

* Record numbers are expected to miss out on university. * Those who do secure places to incur debts of £24,700 in their student years. * Class of 2010 likely to be confronted by uncertain job market when they graduate
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The class of 2010 leaving school this summer is about to face a triple whammy when A-level results are revealed on Thursday.

Firstly, record numbers of high-flying would-be students with three grade-A passes at A-level are set to end up without a university place this autumn; the figure is expected to be more than last year's high of 3,000 disappointed applicants.

One university vice-chancellor yesterday put the overall number of disappointed university hopefuls as likely to be as high as 200,000, or 20,000 above previous estimates.

Professor David Green, vice-chancellor at the University of Worcester, said he believes the overall number of university places will be fewer this year – despite a government pledge to increase numbers by 10,000.

"We can be absolutely certain that many of the people who aren't able to get into university this year will have good qualifications, and in all previous years over the last 10 or 15 they would have got in with the same qualifications," he told BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend. "Surely that is just plain wrong."

Secondly, those who obtain university places are expected to leave in three years' time with record debts.

A survey among 2,000 first-year students this summer indicated that they expect average debts of £23,200, based on what they have incurred in the past 12 months.

With part-time jobs scarce as a result of the economic squeeze, the survey by Push.co.uk went on to estimate that this autumn's first-year undergraduates are likely to end up owing around £24,700 each.

An interesting new light on how university students have incurred these record levels of debt is revealed in a second survey of 2,500 students published today. According to the annual Student Living Index compiled by NatWest, the "bank of mum and dad" is drying up as a result of the current financial climate, with 46 per cent of undergraduates saying that they received no help at all from their parents. Just over one in four (28 per cent) said they were receiving less support than previously.

Thirdly, even when they have completed their three years of study, new graduates still face an uncertain jobs climate. One contributory fact to this is the Government's move to stop employers being able to compulsorily retire their workforce at 65 – meaning school leavers could find new openings being blocked by those who want to stay in employment until later in life.

The dilemma facing the 260,000 candidates who sat this year's A-levels has led to a plethora of advice over how they should tackle the squeeze.

Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of the University and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), has urged more school leavers to consider taking up apprenticeships. "There won't be an open-ended number of places, so there will be disappointed students," she said.

The trouble is that if would-be university students put off entry for a year, they will then be competing for places with the class of 2011 who, with possible cuts of 35 per cent in higher education spending forecast as a result of the comprehensive spending review, look likely to face even more severely reduced student numbers and just as tough a battle to secure a university place. Meanwhile, this year will see 45,000 disappointed candidates from last year joining the scramble for places.

In addition, an unprecedented growth of 23 per cent in applications from the over-40s seeking new skills to avoid unemployment adds to the competition for places.

As a result, the Government has come under fire from Labour for scaling back on the number of new university places that it had previously planned to create.

As election day approached, Labour promised to create 20,000 extra places this autumn as a result of a new £275m "modernisation fund". The Government has stuck to the Conservatives' pledge, announced earlier, that there would only be 10,000 extra places – in subjects key to the future of the economy such as science, maths, technology and engineering – and axed Labour's proposal. As Professor Green predicted, though, there may be even fewer places this year than last. This is because universities are reluctant to over-recruit, knowing they will face fines of £3,700 per student if they do.

Dr Patrick Roach, deputy general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "The Government's cuts are rapidly reducing the range of opportunities available for young people when they leave school, and this is putting more pressure on the university system."

However, David Willetts, the Higher Education Minister, argued that Labour's expansion was a "rushed job" put out just before the election and was not financially viable.

He added: "There has been a surge in applications, so sadly there are going to be a significant number who apply for university but don't get a place. Getting to university has always been a competitive process, but it is going to be very tough this year – I don't disguise that."

This year's scramble for university places coincides with the first year of a revamped A-level system, with the awarding of A* grades for the first time. However, an expected glut (Cambridge University has already had to turn way about 8,000 youngsters expected to get an A* grade) has cast doubt on whether the reforms will succeed in their aim of making it easier for university admissions tutors to select the most talented youngsters for popular courses.

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, is already committed to a further review of A-levels. He has indicated that he wants to see even tougher questions being set to elicit more evidence of "deep thought" by youngsters taking the exam, with universities given a bigger role in setting questions. A major international study will be launched by exams watchdog Ofqual after this week's results, to check whether A-levels are as taxing as their equivalent exams across the world

Isabel Nesbit, the chief executive of Ofqual, told The Independent that the international study would be undertaken to provide evidence for any review, and was being launched following discussions with ministers. "We will look at examples from basic studies for students in a range of different countries," she said.

Ms Nesbit also revealed that higher marks in this year's exam overall would not necessarily lead to the granting of an A* grade.

She said it had been made clear that to qualify for an A* grade a pupil would need to score 90 per cent in the A2 assessments taken in the second year of study: "If one student didn't do well in their AS-levels yet got a fantastic mark in A2s (taken in the second year), they could get an A* grade.

"On the other hand, one who had done well in her AS-levels, and had higher marks overall, would not – if she had not done as well in A2s."

Ms Nesbit added: "It is a difficult case to make out, but the A* is being awarded on performance in the most difficult part of the exam. So I hope we can get the message across that it is being awarded on a fair basis."

It may well be fair, but this year's disappointed high-flying A-level candidates are asking how is it fair – when they have done all that has been asked of them after years of encouragement to go for university places – that they are facing rejection.

Holly Lubran, 18: 'I'm thinking about postponing uni for a year'

Tufnell Park, north London

La Swap Sixth Form, Camden

Predicted grades: English Literature (A), history (B), German theatre studies (A)

Hoping to study English Literature at the University of East Anglia (AAB offer)

What do you think your chances are of getting into your first choice university?

"From my predicted grades it would seem I've got quite a high chance of getting in, but I might need to retake some history modules. If I don't have to do a retake I'll be extremely lucky, but if I do I'll try and be philosophical about it and learn the lesson that I need to work harder."

Are you worried about the cost of going to university?

"I'll be taking out a student loan and I'll get a job as well to try and save as much of the loan as possible. I'd rather spend my own money so it's easier to pay back. I am a bit worried about that and I'm thinking about maybe postponing university for a year. I'll either get a job for a year and put that towards it or have a really big think about whether I'm 100 per cent certain I want to go. I think I do, but it's such a big debt."

What are your job prospects after graduating?

"I'd quite like to be a journalist and going to university will help, but I think doing an internship and working my way up will help more. Then again, people will be more likely to give me work experience or an internship if I've been to university."

Alex Armstrong, 19: 'If I don't get a place, I don't know what I'll do'

Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex

Bexhill College, Bexhill

Predicted grades: Business studies (C), biology (B), already has two Bs in media studies and psychology

Hoping to study Marketing with psychology at the University of Worcester (needs a C in biology)

What do you think your chances are of getting into your first choice university?

"Quite high, but at the same time I'm quite panicky about it because there's a lot of pressure.

"I'm fairly sure I'll get the grades; if not I don't know what else I'll do, because the way the universities are going, more and more people are applying so it'll become harder and harder for me to get in."

Are you worried about the cost of going to university?

"It is a bit of a worry. I'll get a student loan and I may have to get some extra help from the bank. My parents will help a bit too and I'm working a lot – it's such a lot of debt that I just want to try and reduce that as much as I can."

What are your job prospects after graduating?

"Hopefully going to university should improve my prospects of getting a job. I'm hoping to go into marketing as that's what my degree will be in – marketing with psychology."

Harry Trusler, 18 : 'The whole finance thing has been really stressful'

Upminster, Essex

Coopers' Company and Coborn School, Upminster

Predicted grades: Psychology (C), history (B), PE (B)

Hoping to study Nursing at King's College London (BBC offer)

What do you think your chances are of getting into your first choice university?

"It's been quite hard this year; it's a big transition to A-level, and quite a lot of work. Hopefully I should be fine, but obviously there is that little bit of worry. At the same time I know I'm definitely going to end up at uni no matter what grades I get, because I've also got an unconditional offer from Nottingham."

Are you worried about the cost of going to university?

"Getting in debt does worry me, and the whole finance thing has been really stressful. Fortunately, because I'm doing nursing the NHS pays my tuition fees for me but I've had to take out a maintenance loan. When I get into my second year I can get work and paid as a student nurse, but hopefully I'll get a job during the first year anyway."

What are your job prospects after graduating?

"The good thing about nursing is that there's so much I can do with it. Hopefully I'll be able to go straight into a hospital and get working. If not, there's quite a lot of opportunities for nurses in the military. I wouldn't have known what to do if I didn't think I could get into uni – it's the best option really."

Comments