Panic rush for university places: Grant scrap set for 2016 pushes numbers higher as students try to avoid extra debt

Indications are that the class of 2015 could set a new record for the number of places awarded through the post A-level results Clearing system

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Universities are bracing themselves for a record-breaking scramble on 13 August as thousands of teenagers seek to find themselves a place through the Clearing system.

Hundreds of sixth-formers have already ensured they have given themselves a head start in the race by booking themselves into Clearing two weeks early through a scheme run by one of the country’s top universities, Sheffield, one of a handful to allow early registration for a clearing place.

All the indications are that the class of 2015 could set a new record for the number of places awarded through the post A-level results Clearing system – beating last year’s also record figure of 61,130 students.

Firstly, the Government has lifted the “cap” on student numbers for universities, allowing them to recruit as many undergraduates as they want to.

Then, in the wake of the Chancellor George Osborne’s decision to scrap maintenance grants from September 2016, some students who had been planning to delay their entry to university and take a gap year are expected to think again – thus avoiding an estimated £13,000 extra of debt on graduating.

Lynsey Hopkins, head of admissions at Sheffield University, said nearly 400 students had already signalled an interest in Clearing vacancies, with the prospect of the figure rising to 700 by 13 August, when more than 250,000 students receive their A-level results.

Those taking the international baccalaureate, who have their results, and overseas students have already been earmarked for courses.

“The old stigma of getting a place through Clearing is going,” she said. “I think it has always been a useful system – but there was a thought that it was only for those who hadn’t got the results they needed to take up provisional offers.”

With competition to sign up students growing now that restrictions on recruitment have been lifted, it can serve those who have better-than-expected A-level results as well as those who have failed to make the grades expected of them.

Students can also “trade up” the university place offered to them through the adjustment process, which gives them five days to see if they can find a better course or university if they have higher grades than expected. Just over 1,000 students did this last year.

According to Greenwich University, this year’s Clearing day is going to be “faster than ever”. Would-be students can use social media, online chat, Skype or telephone to secure places, it said. “Applying for uni this summer?” it asks. “Skype from the beach.”

Sussex University added: “With the Government lifting restrictions on the number of university places from this year, students receiving their results on 13 August have more options than ever before.”

Rob Evans, its head of admissions, added: “The Clearing process happens quickly but it’s important to make the right decision, so don’t just accept the first Clearing offer you receive. Many universities will run open days for Clearing students in the days immediately after A-level publication day, so ask about these. Nothing beats visiting an institution to find out if it feels right for you.”

Details of the numbers making a last-minute application to avoid the scrapping of maintenance grants and their replacement by loans will remain uncertain until after 13 August.

However, universities are bracing themselves for a rush of applications. “We’re certainly monitoring that because there is a potential that we will see a last-minute increase this year,” said Professor David Phoenix, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University and incoming chairman of the Million+ university think-tank.

He added that the switch to loans would have more impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds as only those with a parental income of less than £25,000 a year were entitled to full grants under the present system.

New research published on 10 August backs up the claims that this year is going to be a record scramble for Clearing places. The research, commissioned from YouthSight by Bucks New University, shows the overwhelming majority of this summer’s school-leavers are planning to forgo a gap year before they go to university.

“Most are keen to start university as soon as possible with only 7 per cent planning to defer their studies to take a gap year,” the survey said. Instead 12 per cent are planning to take that gap year after they graduate. The survey covers 1,000 would-be university recruits.

Many of the country’s most selective universities – including Oxford and Cambridge – have decided against expanding student numbers despite the Government’s lifting of the cap on recruitment. But there are enough other universities lining up to increase their recruitment to make it unlikely many students will be left without a place this summer.

'Hull is quieter than london, but friendlier'

Ruth Akindele is one of the students wooed to Hull through its “pop-up” events in the capital.

Now about to enter the third year of a degree course in psychology and philosophy, she is basking in the fact that her student accommodation only costs her between £3,000 and £4,000 a year – compared with the £7,000 some of her former schoolmates in London are having to fork out.

“That’s a lot different,” she said, although she insists that it was not the cost of  living that attracted her to Hull in the first place.  “Actually, I didn’t know Hull was the cheapest place in England to live.”

Ruth, 20, from Abbey Wood, south London, said  it was a “culture shock”  arriving in Hull, adding: “Coming from London, where the pace of life is very fast, there are a lot of people and things going on. In Hull, the pace of life slows down but the people are much friendlier. The campus is small and it is much more chillaxed than I was used to.”