By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent
We hear a lot about how it has become too easy to get into university these days.
But this could soon change. Within a few years, competition could become much stiffer.
There are two long-term causes and one short-term factor.
The latter could affect applicants wanting to start university in autumn 2005.
This is likely to be the last year before variable, or so-called "top-up", fees begin.
Since the fees for a typical course started in 2005 will be only one-third of the expected fees from 2006, there is a potential saving for students who decide to do without a "gap" year to get in ahead of the new regime.
The was acknowledged by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) this week.
Its chief executive, Sir Howard Newby, said there was already anecdotal evidence that students applying next year would either forgo, or postpone, their gap year to avoid paying a total of £9,000 in fees over three years, rather than the current total of just over £3,000.
However, Hefce acknowledged it could not do much about this likely blip in demand as, by the time they know how many students have followed this strategy, it will be too late to do anything about it.
The only consolation for students rejected in 2005 may be that it might be easier to get a place in 2006.
However, this brings us to the longer-term factors which could make university entrance much more competitive for several years to come.
The most significant is demographics: the rise in the birth rate almost two decades ago means there will be more 18 year olds in the population over the next few years.
According to Hefce, universities will have to accommodate an extra 150,000 students by 2010 just to maintain the proportion of the age group who go to university now.
On top of this, there is likely to be additional demand if A-level pass rates continue to improve, meaning more people will have university entrance-level qualifications.
Of course, it is possible that higher fees will deter some from going to university.
However similar fears before the introduction of the current tuition fee proved ungrounded and, following the parliamentary rebellion, there will now be a more generous system of grants and bursaries for students from poorer homes.
The other important factor affecting demand was highlighted this week in a report from the think-tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi).
It attracted some rather lurid newspaper headlines: "University invasion from the new EU states" was the Daily Mail version.
Will students from eastern Europe swell numbers?
The stories predicted a "massive influx" or "a flood" of students from eastern Europe, who would take up university places here at British taxpayers' expense.
It is strange how the metaphors of drowning - flood, wave, surge - tend to arise in stories about EU enlargement and immigration.
In fact, the Hepi report showed that, while there would be a rise in demand from students in the 10 countries due to join the European Union in May 2004, there would be net benefits for the British economy.
In short, these arrivals could help keep us afloat.
Hepi predicts there will be between 20,000 and 30,000 students from the so-called "accession countries" coming to British universities by the end of the decade. This compares with around 5,000 now.
The attractions are the good international reputation of British universities and studying in the English language.
At present, students from countries like the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, and Poland are treated as "overseas" students and so must pay fees which average around £7,000 to £8,000 a year.
Once they are EU citizens, they will pay the same as British students (although they won't be eligible for grants, unless the British government loses a test case currently before the European Court of Justice).
These extra 20,000 or more students will be welcomed by universities here. The best students in the accession countries are well qualified. Moreover many of them wish to take subjects in hard-to-fill courses like maths and physics.
However, add these extra numbers to the rising numbers of qualified school-leavers in Britain and it is clear there is going to be a substantial rise in demand for university places.
Of course, if the supply of places increases to meet this demand there is no problem.
After all, the government has a target of getting 50% of young people into higher education. That can only be achieved by creating an estimated 250,000 places by 2010.
But is that achievable in just six years? Next year, universities will get an above-inflation funding increase. But this will still only create an extra 20,000 places, most of these for two-year foundation degrees.
This rate of expansion will have to more than double to meet the 50% target, according to experts at Hefce.
Meanwhile, the government has shown clear signs of fudging its 50% target. This week the Higher Education Minister, Alan Johnson, clearly side-stepped the word "target".
Instead he insisted the government meant "working towards 50%". Moreover, he added, this was not a target, but "more like a projection in terms of growth in student numbers".
It would not be surprising if the government were wishing to soft-pedal on achieving the 50% as it will be very expensive to fulfil.
Sir Howard Newby confirmed that this week.
It will be down to Gordon Brown's next comprehensive spending review which, we are told, is already looking tighter than his previous reviews. The priorities in a pre-election period are likely to be the NHS and, as ministers have indicated, early-years and nursery education.
The funds needed to create 250,000 extra university places will be hard to achieve.
In which case, with rising applications at home and throughout the enlarged European Union, it is likely to get more competitive to get into university over the next few years.
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