Leading article: A raw deal for a generation of students

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The Independent Online

Amid the usual scenes of jubilation across the country today as students receive their A-level results, there will be an unusually large amount of dejection. And, in a bitter irony, it will be concentrated among some of the brightest school- leavers. More than 3,000 students who have achieved three A-grade passes are expected to find themselves without a university place to look forward to in the autumn. They should probably not turn to the Universities minister, David Willetts, if they want to be cheered up. In an interview with The Independent today Mr Willetts advises students who find themselves in such a predicament to apply to "slightly less competitive" universities next year.

The injustice here is glaring. These are young people who have done everything asked of them by parents, teachers and politicians: they studied hard, aimed high, and achieved the best possible grades. And their reward is to be told they should lower their expectations.

Nor does the unfairness end there. More than 170,000 young people who have applied to university this year are expected to fail to secure a place. They may not all be top academic performers, but most will have done as well as the students of previous years who won places.

With respect to the straight-A students who have missed out, we will doubtless hear the traditional argument that standards have slipped and that an A grade is not the indicator of achievement it used to be. And in a crude sense that is true. More students than ever are attaining top grades in these exams, making it increasingly difficult for elite universities to decide which students to admit. Disappointment for many excellent students aiming for the best universities was inevitable.

Yet this is by no means the whole story. This year's disappointment for thousands of students is also a result of the squeeze being imposed on the higher education budget by the Government. Demand for university places is growing. A record 660,000 people applied to start undergraduate courses this year, a 12 per cent increase on last year. These numbers have been swelled by tens of thousands who missed out on university places in 2009.

The problem is that the Government is refusing to expand supply to meet the surge in demand. Many universities have been warned that they will be fined if they take on more than their allocation of students. The Government should be expanding provision of education at a time when the economy is still weak and many are looking to acquire skills. That it is not doing so is, in part, a result of the Coalition's determination to reduce public spending on an accelerated timetable.

It is true that the university sector needs reform. And some of Mr Willetts' ideas for reshaping higher education – introducing two-year degrees and encouraging people to study closer to home – are sensible. But that should not be allowed to distract attention from the fact that tens of thousands of the present generation of school-leavers have been handed a raw deal by this Government.

In a twist of the knife, this comes a day after the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, made a speech announcing the Coalition's intention to improve social mobility in Britain. As Alan Milburn, the Government's new reviewer of social mobility, noted in a report last year, the alumni of the elite universities have a firm grip on the top professions, from the law to the Civil Service to Parliament. Mr Willetts might argue that attendance at a "less competitive university" is no long-term handicap to a bright student, but the facts suggest otherwise.

Mr Clegg says that promoting social mobility is a "long-term business". But this Government's short-sighted decision to squeeze the higher education sector at a time of burgeoning demand will surely not speed up the delivery of the fairer society he describes.