Thousands face a miserable summer because institutions are delaying offers and in many cases making far fewer than normal.
Universities and schools say there will be chaos in August during clearing when thousands of students will be making a last-ditch attempt to secure places. For the first time the Higher Education Funding Council for England has said it will claw back money from universities if they overshoot their student targets. As a result universities, desperate not to lose money, are asking for better A-level grades, and reducing the number of offers.
The problem is most acute in the new universities. For years, following the Government's bidding, they over-expanded. But concerned about the cost, the Government has now applied the brake.
Luton University will make 20 per cent fewer offers this year than last. Dr Tony Wood, the vice-chancellor said: 'We are having to be very cautious and are purposely reducing our intake.' Students applying for law and media studies will have to get better grades.
Hugh White, admissions tutor in life sciences at University College, London, said: 'This is an absolutely disastrous situation. In psychology, anthropology and the human sciences we have had to boost our grades, and are asking for ABB, or even AAB at A level. In law they are asking for three As.'
He said the situation was made far worse because they were only told about the clawback decision when they were halfway through the admissions process.
'Some departments had already made half of their offers, so we could not turn round and then reject them. To do this in the middle of the admissions process is a recipe for disaster.'
Just to add to the chaos, this is the first year of the new combined admissions system. Students apply on one form to both the new and old universities. Applications are, as a result, artificially increased. 'We are reconciled to facing financial penalties because we cannot control the numbers,' Mr White said.
Roy Chapman, headteacher of Malvern College, and chairman of the Headmasters Conference said: 'We are very unhappy that universities do not know how many places they have to offer. Everyone is bracing themselves for utter, utter chaos in August when the results come out. It is going to be a nightmare. If students have not got the precise grades in the right subjects universities will take whatever pretext they can for chopping people. They will then have to go into clearing.
'Our only advice is to tell students in August to turn up on the doorsteps of admissions tutors and join what will already be a very long queue.'
Ted Wragg, professor of education at Exeter University, said: 'Universities dare not overfill. There is widespread private talk in the universities and schools that higher grades are being asked for. And people are talking about 20 per cent fewer offers.'
Universities which undershoot will be able to pick up students during clearing in August, but this traditional scramble for places will now be even more frantic. 'Clearing in August will be much tougher for all students,' he said.
Dr Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England in Birmingham, said: 'It is an impossible job. We are deliberately leaving some offers open for clearing. Clearing will be short and brutish with more students chasing fewer places.'
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