Page last updated at 23:03 GMT, Wednesday, 19 August 2009 00:03 UK

Q&A: Squeeze on university places

Pen and paper
Many students might have to go back to the drawing board

The pass rate for this year's A-level results in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is expected to rise. But young people's achievements are set to be overshadowed by the recession and a shortage of university places.

We look at the key issues:

Why is there increased demand for university places this year?

In short, because of the recession. With school leavers and graduates facing a harsh jobs market and high levels of unemployment, increasing numbers of people are choosing to study for a degree or go back into education to improve their skills.

How many people are applying to university this year?

The university admissions service, Ucas says there are now about 60,000 more applicants this year than last year - a rise of about 10%.

However, this is not a definitive figure, as people can still apply to university through clearing until 21 September. Ucas will produce the final figures on numbers of applicants for this year in January 2010.

Why not create more places to meet demand?

The government has made some additional places available. But in January, former universities secretary John Denham said the number of additional student places for this autumn would be capped at 10,000.

The cap was because of a funding shortfall at the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. It later emerged that only 3,000 of these places would be for full-time, first-year undergraduates.

Universities were told that they faced financial penalties if they exceeded their allocations.

Then, last month, the government announced a further 10,000 places would be made available, though it would only fund universities' tuition fees, not any other associated costs of taking on the students.

Will this solve the problem?

These extra places are only for those who want to study "priority" subjects - predominantly maths or science courses, so will not benefit those who have applied for arts subjects, for example.

The extra places are not evenly spread between institutions - extra places were allocated to universities in proportion to the number of places they already offered.

However, some universities, including many in the Russell Group of leading universities, chose not to accept extra places.

They said they did not want to jeopardise teaching quality by taking on extra students.

What about students who have been offered places?

Students who have been offered a conditional university place will get that place as long as they get the required grades.

Those who do not get the grades needed for a given course are unlikely to get their place. In previous years, students who just missed the required grades were often still accepted by their chosen university.

But with places at a premium this year, this is less likely to happen. Students who have not made the grade or who have not already been offered a university place can opt to get a place through clearing, a service which matches students to course vacancies.

Is clearing likely to help many students?

Last year 44,000 students found places through clearing, but it is unlikely to be as many this year.

Indeed, Ucas chief executive Anthony McClaren has predicted "intense pressure" on clearing and said "it may be half that" this year.

Students who opt to go through clearing this year will need to be quick off the mark when they get their results to ensure getting a place.

Ucas helpline: 0871 468 0 468

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