If an eight-year steady improvement in A-level grades continues when results are published next week, more applicants will meet university offers and secure places.
Relief for some will mean added pressure for others with weaker results who will have to fight it out with unprecedented numbers of would-be students for fewer vacant places.
Figures released yesterday by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) offered early indications of a predicted dash for places this autumn. Last-minute applications to university are up by 38 per cent on last year, and the numbers of students placed in clearing so far are up 75 per cent.
The trend follows the announcement last month of government plans to introduce means-tested tuition fees of up to pounds 1,000 per year of study and abolish maintenance grants. The reforms will be phased in from 1998.
The UCAS chief executive, Tony Higgins, said candidates who failed to get the required grades could face competition with up to 90,000 more late applicants than in past years.
They could include students who had planned a gap year before starting university in 1998, others who qualify this summer but originally did not intend to apply until next year, and 19-20-year-olds who already have A-levels but have delayed applying.
Vice-chancellors' leaders yesterday confirmed that candidates would have to be prepared to compromise. The chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Diana Warwick, told BBC Breakfast News that students might not gain their first choice of course. "It is just a question of whether or not the course that you, as a particular student wanted, will be available to you, and that is going to be a bit of a lottery," she said.
Baroness Blackstone, minister for education and employment, dismissed fears that students with deferred places will cancel their gap years as "irresponsible scaremongering".
She said: "If students who have deferred for a year were to rush for this year, they risk having to seek entry at the last minute into courses and institutions they would not otherwise have chosen. Raising fears like this is unnecessary and self- fulfilling."
A survey by UCAS of students who applied and qualified for university entry last autumn but opted not to take up a place found many had changed their mind over their chosen subjects during their year out. The finding will add weight to fears that pupils who rush for places this year to avoid fees may end up taking an unsuitable course.
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