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Friday, 10 August, 2001, 21:00 GMT 22:00 UK
Boom time for student places
lecture room
There are more spare places in the system
Students getting their exam results next week will find there are more university places than ever before.

The effect of the continued expansion in the number of UK higher education places means even prestigious institutions will be offering places through the clearing system this year.

It means those who do not make the grades they need to take up places they have been offered will have plenty of alternatives - though not in Scotland, where there have been record applications.

But it could also mean many thousands of places going unfilled, leaving the weaker universities struggling.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) says it has funded 8,272 additional full and part-time degree places for 2001-02, on top of previously-planned growth of about 20,000 places and 1,780 places on foundation degrees, new this year.

The other big growth, with 7,825 extra places this year, mostly part-time, is at "sub-degree" level - such as HNDs and DipHEs.

Unfilled places

But the number of extra places far outstrips demand.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) says the number of people applying to study at universities and higher education colleges in England was a mere 1,992 (0.6%) higher this year than last.

There were falls of 3.7% in the numbers applying to institutions in Wales and 2.4% in Northern Ireland.

The odd one out is Scotland - where there has not been the same sort of increase in places as in England but the rise in applicants was 3.4%.

Last year 9,500 higher education places went unfilled, about two thirds of them at the new universities.

Crunch time

The former polytechnics enjoyed a boom during the early 1990s, following their change of status, but some had to restructure courses and departments because they did not attract sufficient numbers of students last year.

Many have come to depend on the clearing system to make up the shortfall in applications - but will have tough competition this summer.

An unofficial survey by the Times Higher Educational Supplement this week found most leading institutions would be offering places through clearing.

Only Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics were not taking part in clearing.

But Ucas is keen to quash the idea that there might be any "poaching" of students who get better grades than they had expected and decide not to take up a place they had been offered, in order to go elsewhere.

Binding contracts

A spokeswoman said it was not the case that someone could do this by dropping out of the Ucas system and applying direct, as that would be a breach of the rules covering the 339 higher education institutions in the Ucas scheme.

The scheme existed to try to make the whole process of applying to university as fair as physically possible, she said.

She said: "Otherwise it would be a complete free-for-all.

"That is why your really need to make sure that you know where you want to go to before you apply and are made an offer."

Online information

This year for the first time the whole process can be done online through the Ucas website.

Its web-based enquiry service will let all applicants check the status of their offers.

For those with disappointing results, the clearing service run by Ucas tries to match people without university or college places with institutions which have spare capacity.

During clearing - from 16 August to 21 September - there will be free online access to the constantly-updated official database of vacancy information for full-time undergraduate courses in the UK.

Applicants can search for vacancies by keywords, universities and colleges, geographical regions and the type of course they wish to study.

"Students are advised to disregard any other web-based vacancy services because they are not official and are likely to be incomplete," Ucas said.

Ucas recommends that people do not panic and think they have to take the first vacancy they can find.

"Take your time about making a decision," the spokeswoman said.

"You are probably going to be spending three years at the institution and you really need to make sure it is the right decision for you.

"We recommend that when people decide on a course, they take the clearing form to the institution in person - have a look around and talk to some of the teachers to make sure it's right for them."

There is a Ucas helpline: 01242 227788.

There is also a free helpline as part of the Student Essentials advice and information service being run by the BBC with the Department for Education and the Independent newspaper.

That number is 0808 100 8000.

The BBC's education correspondent Sue Littlemore
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