University too costly for thousands

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School-leavers are being forced to delay starting university because of financial pressures and because they cannot make their minds up a year in advance about where they want to go, according to a report out today.

A survey by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) of 8,000 students who rejected university places showed more than half had turned down an offer because they wanted to rethink their career. A quarter wanted to try again for their first choice of university. One in six had taken a year out to earn money to help pay their way through university. The survey is being published as hundreds of thousands of teenagers prepare to interrupt their holidays this week to return to school for what for many will be the most nerve-racking moment of their lives so far: their A-level results.

The arrival of Thursday's results represents the end of two years' hard work, revision and pre-exam nightmares; but, only adding to the strain, the standard of exam results are continually being regarded with suspicion.

The debate over standards, first opened two weeks ago by a Government inquiry into GCSEs and A-levels, re-emerged yesterday when the Department of Education said it would investigate claims that one examination board has reduced one GCSE maths paper's pass-mark to 14 per cent.

The Southern Examination Group is thought to have lowered the marking level so that 46 per cent of pupils would achieve a grade C or above, a level slightly above the normal rate. GCSE results are due out on 22 August.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, said that if students were able to apply to university after A-Levels - a plan being considered by vice- chancellors - fewer would be forced to take a year out. "If they were a little bit older they would have a greater knowledge of what they wanted to do," he said.

More than 32,000 students who applied for and won a place at university last year did not take it up, the report showed. However, most intended to go into higher education later.

UCAS launched the study last year amid fears that tens of thousands of students were disappearing from the system each year, possibly because of concerns about money or jobs.

The official UCAS listings of places available this year through clearing will appear exclusively in the Independent, starting on Monday 19 August.