Leading article: University challenge

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Those who have applied to go to university this year will face more anguish than usual as they wait to discover if they have been successful. Applications have risen to an unprecedented extent: 486,915 students have applied to go to university, compared with 450,147 last year.

The reasons are not difficult to discern. The Government's £3,000 tuition fees will be introduced in September next year. Thousands of hopefuls are trying to duck under the wire before this happens. Not all want to start their courses straight away, but many are taking advantage of the fact that by applying this year, but going on a gap year, means that they will avoid the tuition fee.

Yet the fact remains that this year substantially more people are applying than can be accommodated. Certain courses are massively oversubscribed. Some will not get to study their desired course. Many will be denied a place altogether.

Of course, it was entirely predictable that such a rush to avoid paying fees would be generated. No one is going to volunteer to be the first to pay for something that has for so long been provided by the state. And, in one sense, it is pleasing that the competition for university places is so strong. It is often forgotten that this is preferable to a situation in which school-leavers shun the idea of going into further education.

Yet this year's over-subscription serves to emphasise just how difficult it is for universities to choose which students to accept. This is difficult at the best of times due to the increasing number of young people going into higher education and to the inflation of A-level grades. This year it will be nigh on impossible for universities to make fair decisions in every instance. The clearing process for those who have missed their grades will be even more frantic and arbitrary than usual.

The news earlier this week that exam boards are planning to send universities information on how students performed in each of their A-level modules should help. This will give a clearer indication of a candidate's abilities than a single grade. And in the absence of the A-level shake-up recommended by the Tomlinson report - which was rejected by the Government - this is probably the best that could be expected. It is also hard to see how top universities will be able to avoid testing applicants themselves at some point in the future. The fact that 5,000 youngsters with three As at A-level fail to get their first-choice course every year means that this is probably inevitable.

Sadly, none of this will help those thousands of applicants who look destined to be disappointed this year and whose academic future will thereby remain in limbo.

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