Higher Education: Year of chaos and shattered hopes: Universities cut back just as applications break records. Ngaio Crequer predicts misery for many

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Alex Verner is a brilliant student. He took chemistry and biology at A-level in one year and achieved A grades in both. At the same time, he took physics GCSE and also got an A. But he has been rejected by five universities for a place at medical school. Two of them did not even give him the courtesy of an interview.

You could not hope to meet someone with a nicer 'bedside manner', and to prove his commitment to medicine he has worked part-time in hospitals, doing lowly jobs, getting a feel of life in hospitals. 'It is hard to know, from the responses I received, what else I could have offered,' he says. 'Obviously I am very disappointed indeed. I have given two years' solid commitment to this. I am now looking at other courses.'

Alex, aged 25, was a late convert to medicine. In 1984 he got nine O-levels, all with good grades, and later three A-levels, in history, theology and English. The only reason he has been given for his rejection is that there is keen competition.

Alex's misery will be felt by thousands of other well-qualified students in various subjects who will fail to gain a place this year. The Government, concerned about cost, has put the brakes on expansion. For the first time, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (but not Scotland or Wales) has said it will financially penalise universities that overshoot their targets. So the universities are asking for better exam grades from students, delaying making offers, and cutting back on their plans - although the number of candidates seeking places is at a record level, up by 3.3 per cent on last year.

Most universities are being very cautious to avoid exceeding their quota. Luton University will make 20 per cent fewer offers this year. It is one of many institutions suffering because, following the Government's bidding, it expanded quickly in the Eighties and early Nineties.

The problem is compounded because universities will also be penalised if they under-recruit. Dr Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England in Birmingham, says the business of making offers to students has become impossible.

'If we under-recruit we have to hand back money. Our margin of error is 56 students out of a total of 8,600. Therefore I am going to be handing money back, but I do not know if this will be for over-recruiting or under-recruiting.

'In higher education we have been used to students having the expectation that they will be admitted, and then they are admitted. Now that will not happen. This will be a political problem in September which the Government will have to address.'

The University of Plymouth is boosting the grades required and making fewer offers. The subjects most affected are popular ones such as pyschology, business studies and the humanities. John Bull, the vice-chancellor, says: 'This is the pattern that every university is following. It's unfair for all the students applying for entry this year.'

August, when clearing takes place, has always been frantic as students scramble for places. This year it will be particularly chaotic.

Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, says: 'The big crunch will come during clearing. It is going to be tough, rough justice, with a lot of well- qualified people not getting in.'

When the chaos becomes evident in the summer there is likely to be more pressure to change a system that has already been creaking under the strain. Sir John Kingman, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, says: 'This is a strong argument for some kind of post A-level admissions system. We are gambling with the future of individual students, and with that of the universities.'

The system was designed 30 years ago, specifically to admit 18- year-old school-leavers. But then only 7 per cent of them went to university. Now more than 30 per cent do.

Students are usually made conditional offers based on predictions by teachers of their A-level grades. Jeff Rooker MP, Labour's former higher education spokesman, has identified this as a chief defect of the system. Sometimes predictions are made up to nine months before the examinations. 'It was something of a surprise during my researches to learn that this modern higher education admission system is based upon predictions of results with a success rate of only 35 per cent.

'Over 50 per cent of predictions by teachers show forecasts of A- level grades too high. In fact, 25 per cent forecast them too high by two grades or more. More than 10 per cent of predictions forecast them too low.

'A 35 per cent success rate is a failure. How can we possibly continue with a 65 per cent failure rate in a modern education system?'

(Photograph omitted)