Source: The Times

Universities have already been swamped with more applications than they received in the whole of the previous academic year, figures are expected to show this month.

Record numbers are fighting for every place on popular degree courses, and school-leavers who would have sailed into university are being squeezed out by a surge in mature and foreign applicants and the overspill from last year. The impact is starting to be felt: sixth-formers with impressive GCSE results and predictions of top A-level grades are being turned away by oversubscribed universities. Admissions tutors say that the personal statement part of the application has taken on a new significance and is being used to choose between outstanding candidates.

Unprecedented numbers applied for higher education last year — 620,000 — and tens of thousands of good candidates were turned away. Many have reapplied this year, creating a bottleneck exacerbated by an increase of almost two thirds in mature applicants, and a rise of nearly a third in foreign applicants. Nearly 571,000 had applied by this January and, if applications rise at the same rate as last year, almost 650,000 will have applied by now.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) will publish updated application figures within a fortnight. It described the situation as “very challenging and competitive”. There are only 10,000 extra full-time undergraduate places.

While revising before A levels, some candidates are experiencing their first taste of rejection and others are questioning whether university makes financial sense. Universities would have fought over Florence MacKenzie, 18, in previous years. On course to achieve A and A* grades in her A levels, she has straight A*s in her nine GCSEs, plays hockey for her school, and is Grade 8 at piano and violin. She and her parents were baffled when she was rejected by three of her five chosen universities. Florence, from Banbury, is happy with her place studying English at University College London, but was turned down by Edinburgh, St Andrews and Durham. All are popular universities, hugely oversubscribed for her chosen subject, allowing them to be extremely picky.

Edinburgh allocated 70 per cent of places on a points system that favoured teenagers from poor schools, those whose parents did not go to university, or those from Scotland or northern England. Florence goes to an independent girls’ school in Warwick so did not qualify. It set a hurdle of 11 GCSEs at A* to qualify for the remaining 30 per cent of places, but many schools (including Florence’s) do not set this many.

She said: “I was very keen on Edinburgh and upset when rejected by them — angry as well after I found out the reasons why. I don’t think it’s a fair way of doing it, they should interview like other universities.”

As many as 25 candidates are pursuing each place on popular courses at leading universities. Luckily for Erik Jellyman, 18, there is slightly less demand among students for physics degrees, although it is still competitive.

Erik had offers from three of his five universities. He is predicted straight A grades in history, maths, physics and art A levels by his comprehensive school — South Dartmoor Community College in Devon. He said: “It’s a nerve-racking time. I’ve probably benefited by choosing quite an unusual course, but I chose it because it was what I wanted to do.”

For some teenagers, the intense competition and prospect of graduating tens of thousands of pounds in debt with no guarantee of a job have triggered a rethink.

Tom Gee, 18, achieved excellent A-level grades last summer but had decided not to go to university. He joined PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the accountancy firm, straight from his grammar school in Redditch.

Tom achieved As in his maths and business A levels, and a B in economics. He said: “I felt that I could do better by progressing my career quickly and building up money rather than accruing debt. There is plenty of opportunity. I think I will be further ahead at 21 than if I had gone to university.”