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University clearing: students to fight for places

By Emma Thelwell

Updated on 19 August 2010

A-level students whose grades do not match up to university offers are facing a tough fight for the few placements freed up through clearing. University think tank million+ gives Channel 4 News tips on how to beat the clearing competition.

A-level results 2010: Students face a tough fight for university places during this year's clearing period (Image: Getty)

Around 170,000 aspiring students will miss out on a place at university this year, due to the record number of applicants - up 11.6 per cent this year.

The unlucky ones whose grades fail to match universities' offers will face fierce competition to secure the few places that become available through "clearing" - as some universities close their doors to clearing entirely.

University Alliance told Channel 4 News that its group of 23 business-focused universities, including Aberystwyth University, Sheffield Hallam, Manchester Metropolitan and Oxford Brookes, have all seen a rise of up to 30 per cent in the number of applicants.

For the first time ever, Aberystwyth and Trinity College Carmarthen in Wales have announced they will not enter clearing.

Several other universities have joined the lock-down on places including Warwick, Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh which have no places left on their courses, even before A-Level results were released.

The London School of Economics and St Andrews in Scotland have said they will have to turn down students who miss the offers they receive from other universities.

Oxford and Cambridge do not enter into clearing – filling all of their available positions straight away, according to UCAS.

Fight for places
Universities are already grappling with a hangover of 56,960 applicants who are reapplying from last year – a 24 per cent rise on the previous year which saw around 46,000-47,000 hopefuls reapply for a place, UCAS told Channel 4 News.

The number of university places available however, remains the same as last year, after the government put a cap on placements to curb budget spending. If universities exceed this cap, they are fined £3,700 per extra student. Universities are facing government funding cuts of at least £1.13bn over the next three years.

Earlier this year, Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) allocated just 10,000 extra student places to universities across England to meet the soaring demand.

Professor Les Ebdon, chairman of the university think tank million+ and vice chancellor of the University of Bedford, told Channel 4 News in order to hit the government's strict target number, universities have had to be tougher with their offers to students.

"Last year, Bedford missed the target by 14 students and we were fined for it. Hitting the target number on the head is worse than landing a jumbo jet on a postage stamp - it's like trying to land a fleet of learjets on a series of postage stamps," he said.

De Montfort University, he said, was fined a massive £3-4m for running over its target student number.

This year, Bedford has 35.65 per cent more applicants than in 2009. Prof Ebdon said he would be personally overseeing the clearance procedure, helping to hand out the precious few places that become available.

Liverpool John Moore's University saw the rise in students and has adjusted its courses, closing some to clearing, such as politics.

Tips for those facing clearing:
If you are one of the unlucky 170,000 who fails to secure a university place, you can enter into the clearing process with UCAS (for more information on clearing click here). Prof Ebdon gives Channel 4 News his top tips:

1. Can you be flexible on your chosen subject? There may well be more vacancies in the 'stem' subjects of science, technology, maths and engineering.

2. Can you be flexible with location? There may be more places on offer for your chosen subject at another university.

3. Consider becoming a part-time student. Part-time students make up between 42-48 per cent of all students in the UK and are not subject to the government's 'cap'. You can combine a part-time Open University degree course with a part-time job.

4. Take a Gap Year, but make sure you do something useful to enhance your university application for next year. "Don't just wander around the world. Do something that develops your leadership, iniative and new skills - particularly the 'soft skills': interpersonal, communication skills, that school leavers often lack," Prof Ebdon said. 

So far, 660,953 people have applied for full-time undergraduate courses beginning this autumn, 40,000 more than last year.

Prof Ebdon said much of the rise in applications at Bedford was found in public sector callings - particularly strong in teaching, nursing, midwifery and social work.

The 10,000 extra places were made available in stem subject areas (science, engineering, maths and technology), with universities from University Alliance (UA) winning a third of the extra student places.

While it is not yet known how many will reapply through clearing, last year 47,000 were given places through clearing.

According to HEFCE, there are just over a million students currently in higher education across England.

Well under half of those, 389,000, hail from within the UK and EC. Overseas applicants are up by almost 29 per cent. Overall, the number of students in the up-coming year 2010-11 are expected to grow to record levels.

A spokesman for UCAS told Channel 4 News the driving force behind the rise was the current economic climate, pushing people towards higher education to improve their chances of securing a job and also attracting those wanting to retrain or build on their qualifications.

Around 80 per cent of newly created jobs now require graduate-level skills, according to UA.

Meanwhile, UCAS figures show that almost 90,000 applications this year are from mature students aged 25 or above – a huge 22.7 per cent rise on last year.

Applicants aged between 21-24 have also risen by almost 15 per cent, and the number of those aged 40 or above has climbed 23.3 per cent.

The Labour government wanted 50 per cent of school leavers to go into further or higher education.  The coalition government however, has been noticeably silent on this - Higher Education Minister David Willets says only that he does not like targets.

There are concerns now that if universities are allowed to raise their fees - if the recession lasts too long - poorer students will be put off.

This only highlights the issue of students' rising debt - an average of nearly £25,000 each.

Plus, a new graduate tax is currently being discussed which could see fees rising from £3,225 a year to as much as £7,000.  

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