Page last updated at 16:55 GMT, Wednesday, 21 October 2009 17:55 UK

More students on degree courses

Student numbers have been steadily rising

The number of UK students who took up a place at university this autumn rose 6% on the previous year, figures show.

Statistics from the admissions service, Ucas, show a total of 477,277 students started degree courses in the UK in 2009, compared with 451,871 in 2008.

The rise, partly due to the recession, was expected and the government had announced in July that 10,000 extra places would be made available.

But with applications at record levels, many students have been disappointed.

Applications this year from UK students to the UK's universities were up on last year by 50,935 - about 10% - so the proportion of applicants failing to get a place has risen.

While the Ucas statistics do not specifically indicate how many UK applicants were disappointed, they show 156,315 applicants either withdrew their application or were unsuccessful in finding a university place.

In 2008, 130,786 applications were in this category - 25,529 fewer than this year.

There was also a rise in the number of students getting places going through clearing.

Fines for universities

The figures also highlight the possibility that universities in England could be fined for recruiting too many students.

These figures confirm ministers have completely messed up this year's university entrance process
David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Universities and Skills

Earlier this year, Westminster put a 10,000 cap on the expansion of university places for this autumn because of budget restraints.

It later increased funding to cover 13,000 extra places for UK and European Union full-time undergraduates, as the number of applicants surged.

However, 372,546 UK and EU applicants won places at English institutions this autumn - 17,943 more than in 2008.

This would suggest that universities have accepted nearly 5,000 too many students.

The government had previously warned that universities that over-recruited would face penalties.

But the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said it was too early to speculate on over-recruitment and that ministers would wait for further statistics due out in December.

Adjustment system

Acting chief executive of Ucas, Virginia Isaac, said this year had been "unprecedented".

"Significantly increased applications and far more students being accepted at a university or college than ever before.

"In particular we have seen a notable increase - of 10.1% - in acceptances of students aged 25 and over."

The Ucas figures also showed 384 students, who got better results than expected, used the new adjustment scheme to find a place at an alternative university.

Ms Isaac said: "While only a small number of applicants utilised the service, it gave students, particularly those with more vocational qualifications, the chance to review their options within a secure framework."

Higher education secretary David Lammy said: "Clearing has been a great success, with early predictions about the lack of places available proving premature, with over 47,000 people finding a place through this service.

"This year, more students than ever before will take advantage of the record number of funded places on offer."

Ministers 'messed up'

But shadow secretary of state for universities and skills David Willetts said: "These figures confirm ministers have completely messed up this year's university entrance process.

"There was an entirely predictable increase in demand for university this year and the government failed to plan for it.

"The rise in the number of disappointed applicants comes despite over-recruitment by universities, which could lead to fines.

"Ministers have a 50% target for young people going to university and they now look set to penalise universities for meeting it."

Chief executive of the university think-tank million+, Pam Tatlow, said: "If universities had not been prepared to take an additional 10,000 students for whom the government provided student support but not teaching costs, it is clear that many more applicants would have been disappointed.

"The government and the funding council should now withdraw their threat to fine universities which have over-recruited students in what ahs been a record-breaking year.

"Much more work need to be done to identify the number of students who were could not find a university place on the course of their choice and have deferred their applications until next year."

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