Course Guidance: Look for the hard sell in a volatile time: Karen Gold finds that students are still in big demand

IN THE best-ever year for A level results and with apparently record university intakes already, you might think only a handful of bottom-of-the-barrel course vacancies are left in clearing. You would be wrong.

This time last year, two-thirds of the way through clearing, roughly 10,000 people had found places in clearing via PCAS. The final PCAS clearing successes (including degree and HND students) passed 25,000 - more than double.

This year 12,000 people have so far found PCAS places in clearing. If universities were recruiting only the same numbers as last year, that would mean more places were full and fewer left. But all the signs are that recruitment is up by a record 20 per cent. On last year's pattern that means up to 18,000 places are still available.

'Admissions officers are still saying, 'We are desperate to get students in' ' the PCAS chief executive Tony Higgins said. 'These aren't just courses hoping to pick up one or two extra students. These are real vacancies waiting to be filled.' UCCA too shows signs of plenty of places. It began clearing this year with vacancies in over 100 more courses than last year, and there are still places in surprising subjects like law and business studies, an UCCA spokesman, Jeff Enderby, said. At this point last year universities in UCCA had accepted around half of the final number of students placed through clearing. On the same pattern, that suggests at least 6,000 still unfilled vacancies in UCCA institutions.

In fact there may be more. Normally the more popular universities and subjects fill up first. This year things are more volatile. The good A level results enabled some students expecting to go to former polys to get into universities instead. That has meant courses going in and out of PCAS clearing like yo-yos. Portsmouth University (formerly Portsmouth Polytechnic) is not unusual in having put Sociology, English, Creative Arts and Latin American Studies into clearing, out again, in again and possibly out again, all in the last fortnight.

The name-changes of most polytechnics to universities has had exactly the opposite effect. Several thousand fewer students than usual have turned down conditional offers made through PCAS. That means students are sticking with the 'new' universities, causing the 'old' universities some headaches.

'This year we are in clearing to replace our losses as well as pick up the few extra students we needed,' said Ken Young, admissions officer for Newcastle University.

So what does all this mean for anyone still hunting for a place? Firstly it is good news for non-scientists. As always, vacancies in science and technology this year heavily outnumber every other subject, and 'A' level points scores required are down to two E's in some science courses. But there are far more vacancies in law, business studies, social sciences and arts than usual, and some institutions are now lowering the grades they want for these too.

Oxford Polytechnic, for example, normally, a by-word for popularity, is prepared to look at candidates with less than the 'C' grades normally demanded for its planning degree. Bath College is encouraging people with only Music A level plus grade 8 performance standard to contact tutors about its music degree.

Secondly, it means keeping up the momentum of the search. There are vacancies in unexpected universities and unexpected courses, but because the situation is so fluid you have to look for them and keep on looking. Even today's vacancy picture may have changed before you get through on the phone and it may change back again tomorrow.

Thirdly it means the prizes will go to the entrepreneurial. Several colleges are running hot-lines to encourage you to ring them direct. This is a sign of desperation, whatever the accompanying blurb about 'last few places' may say. Ring up and persuade them that, despite your grades, you are serious.

If there are recruitment fairs, go to them. Middlesex University ran a fair for its new health studies degree earlier this month. It had no students registered at the start of the afternoon, and 70 by the end.

If you have reasonable grades but no place, ring your favoured institution even if it is apparently full. With funding for universities following students, everyone is under pressure to expand, says Brian Salter, academic registrar of King's College, London.

If admissions tutors say 'no', ask to be put on a waiting list. Students drop out up to enrolment and beyond: there are always casualties in the first week.

'We have places reserved in hall even for people who come very late,' Len Young, of Newcastle, said. 'We can take people up to the 11th hour and beyond.'

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