Free places plan to stem college rush

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The Independent Online
School leavers facing university fees because they arranged a year off will still go for free, providing they can prove that they plan to do voluntary work before starting their course.

However, the concession, signalled yesterday by ministers following predictions that many students would try to cancel gap year plans to avoid debts of as much as pounds 10,500, may be too little too late, university admissions officials warned.

There were concerns that the fee waiver, a one-off scheme intended to ease a predicted scramble this week for the last unfilled university places, will do nothing to help the tens of thousands of school-leavers who had planned to apply to university during a year off, rather than gaining a place and deferring it.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) is also worried that details of the concession, to be announced after A-level results are published on Thursday, will come too late to help students unsure if they qualify.

The deal to be offered by the Government will be open only to students who have already been formally offered a university place deferred for entry in 1998. Following the announcement last month of moves to scrap student grants and introduce means-tested tuition fees from 1998, admissions leaders have warned of a potential dash for the last free places as those in the "gap trap" scrap their year-off plans.

The Department for Education and Employment yesterday said charges would be waived for "students who have made a commitment to helping charities and have got a guaranteed place in 1998". Students must prove they are to do a minimum of three months' voluntary work at home or overseas with an approved organisation such as The Prince's Trust or Voluntary Service Overseas.

Of the 19,048 students with deferred places this year, around 10,000 might be expected to qualify, officials suggested.

However, it remained unclear last night whether students must have already formally arranged a voluntary placement in order to take advantage of the deal, or whether they need merely make a commitment to do so.

There could also be problems over which charities qualify. Students intending to do voluntary work for an organisation not on the approved list would be dealt with "on a case-by-case basis", the DFEE said. But those intending to seek an alternative university place this year if they do not qualify for a fees waiver would need a decision quickly to allow them to apply.

The fees concession comes after a week of pressure on the Government over the expected admissions scramble, with figures published by UCAS showing a 38 per cent increase compared with last year in applications to its clearing system, which matches applicants to unfilled places.

Last Thursday, Baroness Blackstone, the education and employment minister, accused UCAS and the National Union of Students of "irresponsible scaremongering".

The UCAS chief executive, Tony Higgins, yesterday expressed reservations over the fees waiver. It would do nothing to bail out the 70,000 students who normally apply or reapply to university in a gap year after their A-level results, he said. It was a matter of "happenstance" for many whether they secured a deferred place or applied after qualifying, and in many cases delay helped students choose a more suitable course.

Students and their parents would also want to see the "small print" of the waiver deal, Mr Higgins said, yet they would need to move swiftly to find an alternative university place if they opted to cancel a gap year.

Others would face problems fitting in voluntary work because their future university had advised them to find work connected with their course.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, welcomed the decision "to protect the position of students who will be undertaking a gap year between leaving school or college and going on to university".

He added: "Heads of schools who have advised their students that it would be valuable to undertake a gap year did not wish to see those students penalised by the proposed changes in the funding of tuition fees which come into effect from September 1998. The Government has made the only sensible and fair decision which it could have made in order to keep faith with students doing a gap year."