The numbers seeking a place through clearing will be swelled by those who got unexpectedly good grades and will now begin the search for a course. About 145,000 of the original applicants will still be without a university place by the middle of next week. No one knows exactly how many students will enter the clearing system, which matches students without a university place to vacancies, but officials at the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) predicted yesterday that there will be only 20,000 places compared with last year's 44,000.
The results published yesterday mean that more students will be accepted by their first-choice university, leaving fewer of the 270,000 places for those who fail to make the grade.
Officials also predicted there would be 25,000 new applications between now and the end of September from people who had done better than expected at A-level. About 7,000 students rang the Ucas offices yesterday - half were requesting application forms because of unexpectedly good grades.
The BBC helpline was also taking 200 calls an hour, more than in any previous year. Most were from students whose results were better than expected.
Tony Higgins, the Ucas chief executive, said: 'If we assume 20 per cent of people are rejected and the rest accepted, then around 250,000 students will have been accepted by the middle of next week.' But he added: 'That doesn't mean it will be a greater scramble than last year. It means that a lot more people will have got in earlier. Clearing will be shorter and simpler.'
There are about 395,000 applicants. Mr Higgins said no one knew what happened to people who applied to university but decided not to enter the clearing process. 'Maybe they failed their A-levels or maybe they are mature students who changed their minds.'
Ministers yesterday defended the exam against charges that the record results - an increase of 1.8 per cent in the pass rate - meant that it was getting easier.
Eric Forth, the Minister of State for Education, said: 'No one is complacent. We are doing everything we can to ensure that standards are being maintained.' He denied that better results were attributable to more students taking 'soft' subjects such as art and media studies. While the numbers taking maths and physics had fallen, those studying chemistry, biology and technology had risen.
The Labour education spokesman, Bryan Davies, said the new clearing system combined with the failure of the Government to provide more higher education places meant that many students would be disappointed. 'The anxiety we all have is whether students are going to get the just rewards from the achievements they have now registered,' he said.
Students who do better than they expected will be tempted to reject their offers from less popular universities and to look for places at better-known ones. The Vice- Chancellor's Committee said yesterday that the universities' official position was to compel students to stick with their original offers. But a spokesman added: 'How much power universities have to do this is not clear.'
An 11-year-old boy who suffers from dyslexia yesterday became the youngest person to pass an A-level in English Literature. Alexander Faludy, whose writing is barely legible, got a grade B after dictating his work and exams on to tape.
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