Predictions of the scale of the scramble for remaining unfilled places came as it emerged that late applications received by the national university admissions body are already up by one-third on last year.
The figure provides the first confirmation of early warnings by admissions officials of the likely effect of government plans to make graduates pay a minimum of pounds 3,000 towards the cost of their studies. Students who had planned to delay a university career were now trying to "get in under the wire", Tony Higgins, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), said last night.
In a separate development, it emerged yesterday that more places in university could be funded out of the social security budget under radical reforms of the welfare system planned by Frank Field, the social security minister.
Mr Field suggested that savings of 10 per cent on the pounds 80bn social security budget could be made by devolving more decision-making over spending to local welfare offices.
Whitehall officials confirmed last night that ministers were looking at ways of providing the unemployed with a route from welfare into work and other opportunities, including universities and further education.
David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, has played down fears of a late dash for places, insisting there will be no more of a scramble than in previous years.
Following the publication last month of the Dearing report on the future of higher education, ministers announced moves to scrap maintenance grants and introduce means-tested tuition fees. The move prompted predictions by UCAS that some of the 19,000 school-leavers who have deferred a university place until 1998 in order to spend a year abroad or at work would scrap their plans and seek a place in September instead.
UCAS is now also bracing itself for a further flood of late applications from students who applied and qualified for university last year but decided not to take up a place. On the evidence of numbers in previous year who have later changed their minds, up to 23,000 would-be students could join the scramble for places. As many as 48,000 more could come forward from the pool of 19- and 20-year-olds who left school without applying to university but have enough qualifications for entry. Mr Higgins said the total number of extra applicants could climb as high as 80,000.
Candidates applying late for university pass through the clearing system, run by UCAS. The number of places available through clearing will not be known until A-level results are published next week. The number of candidates who apply through the clearing system in a typical year cannot be measured, but it is certain that an extra 80,000 would dramatically increase competition for places.
As the first evidence of this year's rush emerges, admissions officials are already contemplating possible knock-on effects. Fears are being raised that the scramble could lead to lower applications for entry in 1998, particularly in less popular subjects.
University admissions officers have already begun to report a rise in inquiries about vacancies, and careers services are also fielding high numbers of calls. Parents, fearful of being landed with tuition debts, are making inquiries over places available this year on behalf of their offspring.
Students who have accepted deferred university places and seek to drop them in favour of entry this autumn are, in theory, opening themselves up to potential legal action from the institution, since they will have broken a contract. In practice, however, it is unlikely that universities will seek redress.
The truth about tuition fees,
The Independent will be the only newspaper to carry the full official UCAS clearance listings of university places. The first lists appear next Thursday
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