Colleges tout for any custom

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Universities are letting in an increasing number of students without any qualifications. About 20 now offer extended science courses for which there are no formal entry requirements.

The courses, on which students can claim grants and fees for four years, are becoming increasingly common as universities struggle to recruit scientists and mathematicians. Many of the students involved have not taken A-levels or comparable courses, but some have - and done badly.

There were signs this weekend that many colleges were unlikely to meet their target numbers. Admissions tutors said that, while candidates were still inquiring about arts courses, the telephones in science departments had virtually stopped ringing. There is extra pressure this year because the Government has threatened financial penalties for universities which either overshoot or undershoot on recruitment.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said the shortages stretched beyond science and engineering courses. Some universities reported difficulties in finding students for languages, economics and geography.

So far this year, 254,000 students have accepted places, leaving about 16,000 still to be filled. The shortfall has surprised admissions officers who had expected improved A-level results to mean few spare places. It seemed that an upturn in the economy might be responsible, Mr Higgins said.

'We've always thought that a reason that the number of applicants has gone up so much in recent years has been problems in the economy. People thought they could get a better job as a graduate or wanted to put off the evil day when they had to look for one. The opposite must be the case,' he said.

The number of universities offering four-year science degrees incorporating a foundation year is thought to have doubled in the past year to about 20. At the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, there are two four-year physics courses, one for mature students and one for 18-year-olds who have not done well in A-levels.

Other universities are resorting to novel recruitment methods. Last night the Long Road Sixth-Form College in Cambridge said it had been telephoned by a university looking for geography and geology students. At Nene College, Northampton, where about 300 places out of 2,800 remained unfilled, campus tours were being held three times a day.