UK: Record scramble for university places

As A-level exam results were announced last Thursday, it was predicted that some 200,000 young people might fail to get into a UK university out of the record number of 660,000 who applied this year. UCAS, the university and college admissions service, calculated that 44% failed to get the grades they needed, but 380,000 had achieved their desired places.

Competition for places will be even fiercer this year than last as there has been a record 12% increase in applications. Seven students are likely to have to compete for every spare place through the clearing system

For the 28th successive year, the A-level pass rate has risen. It is now at a record high of 97.6% with 27% of entries achieving an A grade. Just over 8% (one in 12) were awarded the new A* grade, introduced this year supposedly to help the most competitive universities select the best candidates. The A* requires marks over 90% in a candidate's second year exams.

Last year almost 48,000 students found places through UCAS' clearing system, which matches available university places to students who didn't get the grades needed for their first choice. Universities Minister David Willetts said 18,000 courses with places would be on offer through clearing this year.

Despite fears that elite universities had closed their doors in advance of clearing, nine of the Russell Group's 20 members said they would have places available including King's College, London, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds.

The government has funded 9,000 extra places this year, bringing the total of students at English universities to around 365,000. However, places are capped and universities will be fined £3,700 per student for over-recruiting.

Nicola Dandridge, Chief Executive of Universities UK, urged students not to panic. They should consult the UCAS exam results helpline. She also called for high-quality, targeted information, advice and guidance for candidates applying for places.

"Good advice enables potential applicants to decide whether higher education is right for them, and which subject, course and institution is most suitable for them to succeed. If advice is poor, applicants may end up applying to the wrong courses and ultimately, not getting a place at university," Dandridge pointed out.

"Enrolling on to an unsuitable course can also lead to students dropping out. This is not necessarily the fault of schools themselves, rather schools and colleges must receive more support to improve the standard and consistency of advice across the pre-higher education sector."

She said more information was needed about why students who applied failed to get places. Last year more than 160,000 were classed as 'non-placed'. Did they have the right grades, or did they turn down offers?

National Union of Students president Aaron Porter said: "With youth employment pushing one million, savage education funding cuts and arbitrary limits on places, the government is at risk of imposing poverty of opportunity on a generation of young people facing a very uncertain future."