Almost a third of Britain’s leading universities still have places available with less than a week to go before the application deadline, following a sharp drop in student applications, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.Seven out of 24 institutions in the elite Russell Group are still advertising vacancies on more than 1,000 courses days before the start of the academic year.
30 thousand more places have been made available through the clearing system than at this time last year, increasing suspicions that £9,000-a-year tuition fees have put off many school-leavers.
Despite the unexpectedly high level of vacancies for British students, places are likely to go unfilled because fewer pupils have achieved the entry requirements for leading universities.
One Russell Group university, Queen Mary, University of London, was yesterday advertising spaces on 178 of its 194 courses that are available through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Sheffield University had places to spare on 257 of its 326 courses, including English literature and law. Exeter was yet to fill 191 out of 316, including psychology and classics.
Overall demand for university places is down by seven per cent on last year, with many blaming the new higher fees. Leading universities have also been hit by a decline in the number of teenagers gaining good A-level grades following a drive to make exams harder. David Willetts, the universities minister, said that this summer there was a fall of 5,000 in the number of pupils believed to have gained at least two As and a B, the threshold for many courses at leading institutions.
If the places are not filled, some universities could suffer multi-million-pound losses.
Lecturers’ leaders warned that the decline represented a rejection of the new fees regime, which has seen the price of courses almost treble at some universities.
Sally Hunt, the general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “Fewer students at UK universities this year represents the predictable failure of the Government’s attempt to create an artificial market for the most highly-qualified students.
“The minister’s recognition that higher tuition fees forced a scramble for places last year highlights the unfair nature of this Government’s hike in fees. At a time of high unemployment, we should be making it easier for people to get to university, not pricing them out.”
Mr Willetts said evidence from previous higher education reforms showed that “individual institutions can face a temporary jolt when changes like this are introduced”, with students applying early to get around the fees increase.
This will lead to declines in entry rates at some institutions, creating “real pressures”, he said. Speaking at the Universities UK annual conference at Keele University, the minister said: “I think we are likely to see fewer students going to university this year because last year’s figure was partly artificially inflated by fewer people taking a gap year. But I still think we will have very high numbers of students going to university.”
Universities have been given greater freedom to take unlimited numbers of students with at least AAB at A-level. Previously the Government operated strict controls on all student places, threatening universities with fines if they over-recruited. The move was designed to create more competition between institutions and free up places for the brightest students.
But a decline in the number of teenagers gaining top grades has actually led to some leading universities facing shortages.
Mr Willetts said that 80,000 students gained AAB, compared with a previous prediction of 85,000.
The decline in applications can also be put down to a fall in the number of 18-year-olds in the education system over recent years.
Figures from Ucas showed that the number of students who accepted places at English universities by Sept 11 was down by 30,076 on last year.
There were 26,997 courses with vacancies in clearing, and eligible candidates have until Sept 20 to apply. Some 642,654 people applied to study this year, compared with 692,358 last year.
In a separate disclosure, Times Higher Education magazine carried out an anonymous survey of universities to find out how many students with grades of AAB had been admitted.
One Russell Group university said it was 500 short of predictions, while three others were down by 400, 260 and 160. Another “less selective” university said student numbers were down by 700.
With average annual tuition fees estimated at £8,123, it is believed universities could be facing a £700 million loss of funding over three years.
Wendy Piatt, the directo- general of the Russell Group, criticised the Government’s decision to award more places to cheaper universities.
“The first year of the new funding system was always going to be challenging and uncertain. But the Government’s core and margin policy of re-distributing places, largely on the basis of lower fees, meant universities had fewer places to offer to students with grades below AAB and this has had a knock-on impact.
“We have consistently argued this policy of giving more places to institutions charging lower fees would neither improve quality nor enhance student choice.
“If universities couldn’t recruit enough high-calibre students they risked losing funding but if they recruited too many students with grades ABB or below they risked substantial fines. The difficult choices faced by admissions departments this year means students who wanted to attend a leading university and had the right qualifications have not been able to even though those universities wanted to accept them.”
Mr Willetts said: “Different institutions will have been affected differently; that is inevitable when making significant changes, which are intended to take greater account of student choice.”
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