On your marks: record grades trigger the race for places

Universities were last night snapping up students after a record A-level pass-rate.

They had confirmed offers for more than 150,000 of the 290,000 available places, significantly more than at the same time last year.

This means that there may be fewer places in clearing than last year because more students will have made the grade. The A-level pass-rate is up by 1.8 percentage points, one of the biggest increases in the last seven years.

But university admissions officers said students should not panic. Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said: "If we go on at this rate, there will be fewer places in clearing, but that doesn't mean there will be greater pressure because there will be fewer people chasing them."

Candidates who have just missed their offers may have a better than usual chance of gaining places. Courses which might have gone into clearing, through which spare places are allocated to students who have not got into university, will have fewer places to fill and may decide instead to recruit the next few students down their list.

Universities said there was no danger that the improved pass-rate would mean they overshot their targets. A spokesman for the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals said: "If you recruit too many people in English, you can always tell the engineers to take fewer."

However that meant there might be fewer places in clearing on the less popular courses, he added.

Universities are under more pressure than usual to recruit students because of government cuts in higher education funding. They stand to lose money if they do not meet their targets.

The annual row over standards erupted yesterday, fuelled by the traditionalists' conviction that the modular exams are easier to pass than those which depend on a final exam.

The pass-rate for modular exams, a series of tests throughout the course with an exam at the end, was higher than for the traditional exams, though a higher proportion of candidates were awarded A grades in the latter.

However, exam boards emphasised that modular courses motivated students and that both types of exam were marked according to the same standard. Kathleen Tattersall, convenor of the joint forum for the GCE and GCSE exams, said: "Modular schemes have enabled candidates to exercise choice and to optimise their attainment but it is the quality of work alone which determines the grade."

Lord Henley, the schools minister, defended the exam and congratulated candidates on their hard work. "We're not complacent about standards and are determined that public examinations earn and retain their national currency. We must not fall into the trap of thinking that if results improve, standards must be at risk."

Bryan Davies, a Labour education spokesman, said that "a proper concern for standards should take nothing away from the achievements of students on this important day".

He called for an inquiry into whether we needed five exam boards and the Liberal Democrats said there should be one united board.

Sir Rhodes Boyson, former Conservative education minister, said the figures showing an improved pass-rate were meaningless. Modular exams, he said, were "like a Caucus race, you start when you like, you stop when you like and everyone gets prizes."

On the improvement in standards, he said: "I am not knocking the children. They do work harder but if the figures are to be believed, the brains of our people are increasing at such an amazing rate that we should be able to invade outer space."

He proposed a new scholarship exam for the top 12 universities, with everyone else taking another exam.

The Association of University Teachers believes that A-levels fail to prepare students for university courses: "Strong anecdotal evidence indicates an increasing mismatch between what A-level students achieve and what is needed for university courses."

But David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said allegations that standards were falling were poppycock.

"Faced with clear evidence of a rise in attainment levels, the prophets of doom have attempted to attack modular examinations as 'proof' of a decline in standards. But there is no such evidence."

Steve Sinnott, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "Students and teachers would appreciate at least one year when their efforts were not undermined by a small, politically motivated group denigrating their achievements. It is time that this nasty little group stopped and allowed our young people to enjoy their success."

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