Yes we've done it: Scramble intensifies for last free places at univers ity

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The race for the last free university places began in earnest yesterday after more than 190,000 applicants for the 310,000 places available had their offers confirmed.

Late entries to the clearing process are up by 40 per cent, suggesting that some candidates may be applying this year rather than next to avoid paying tuition fees to be introduced next autumn.

The rise in the A-level pass rate for the 16th successive year will mean that more students will have gained the grades they need, leaving fewer places up for grabs.

On Wednesday, the Government announced that students who have already applied for a university place but decided to defer entry and take a gap year would be exempt from fees.

But Baroness Blackstone, the education minister, confirmed yesterday that those who had not already applied and intended to do so during the next 12 months would have to pay fees. So far there have been 9,753 late entries, compared with 6,944 at the same time last year.

That trend, which would mean an additional 10,000 entries by the end of the clearing process, might not continue if students decide the competition will be too tough this year.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said there was room within universities for places for the 10,000 but the picture would change if the 20,000 students who usually drop out of clearing each year decided to stay on because of fees. "That could be more than universities could cope with and we could see people who might otherwise have found a place not doing so."

As more than a quarter of a million A-level students received their grades yesterday, The Independent's table of high-performing comprehensives was topped by a former secondary modern in the shadow of two major public schools. Pupils studying two or more A-levels at Chase High School in Malvern, neighbour of the mighty Malvern College and Malvern Girls' College, gained an average of 22.1 points each - the equivalent to two Bs and a C.

The Independent contacted 200 top state comprehensive schools yesterday for their results. The table is a good guide to their performance, but is not definitive. The results show that, as last year, high-performing comprehensives outstrip many grammar schools.

Best performing schools, page 6

Earlier this week, Mrs Clare Cooper wrote to us, pointing out quite correctly that `Each year, on publication of the A-level results, the front page of every broadsheet pictures jubilant young women laughing and hugging each other. While of course they look beautiful, we've had this each year for about decade. As concern grows about the decline in young men's school achievement and motivation, could we, this year, have some photos of young men similarly celebrating?' Fair dos. But it hasn't been easy. First, as the writer pointed out, young men often have less to celebrate. And second, when they do, a modest shrug, a glare at the ground and the ghost of a smirk is all youmostly get. But we've done our best, Mrs Cooper. These young men were receiving their results at Parliament Hill School, north London, yesterday Photograph: Nicola Kurtz