Once Again, the Fairytale of Academia for All Becomes Less Likely

As the applicants for this academic year will be the final students to dodge the widely adopted nine thousand pound a year fees, many predicted record numbers of applications and this indeed proved to be the case. UCAS reported a total of 697,351 applicants, but with only 487,329 of them receiving a placement, thousands of students are left contemplating forced gap years, paying nearly three times as much in tuition fees the following year  or even abandoning their hopes of a university education altogether.

A-level results day saw the pass mark increase for the 29th year in a row, with the number of students achieving the coveted A*grade reaching almost 1 in 10; once again an increase from the previous year. The results, however, were nothing short of the predicted outcome and with the jump in university applications, statistically the average student couldn’t be sure of a place at university even with a results paper littered with A’s and A*’s. Last year ministers attempted to combat the ever increasing number of applications by funding 10,000 extra places in English universities, a practice that will continue this year, but is set to be scrapped by 2012. However, the rise in applications comes at a difficult time for universities as they await the ability to charge £9,000 in tuition fees while facing a cut in funding for teaching of £300m. It seems likely that these pressures will be passed down to the universities admissions processes.

With the record number of applications and A-Level results, an increased strain on the clearing process was inevitable. There were 46,925 places allocated in clearing this year, with those from Royal Holloway all filled in a single day. The process moved into increasing complexity after the UCAS Track website, where students can check the status of their applications, crashed as the system failed to cope with the sheer number of students attempting to use it. Although it was restored hours after crashing followed by an apology by UCAS, the computer error added to the confusion of A-level results day as students scrapped for the last remaining university places.

The universities minister, David Willetts, spoke of the government’s aim to ‘open up other routes to a successful career’ and highlighted the plans for ‘investing in new apprenticeship places’ to cater for those who will be increasingly sidelined from university education by the competitive nature of applications or the rising fees. Some, however, such as the NUS president Liam Burns, believe that the applications process itself is suffering from flaws in the transparency of the criteria used to determine successful applicants. Burns made clear his fears that the current system could see ‘talented young people…missing out on a university place because of poor guidance.’ He welcomed the idea of UCAS reforming its current admissions system, especially towards ‘post-qualification admissions’ (PQA) in the next few years.

This year’s applicants have faced numerous obstacles, but with the introduction of the £9,000 a year tuition fees, UCAS reform, and the Education Secretary Michael Gove promising further restriction of the A-level system to comply more with European methods, those about to step into higher education in 2012 can expect more changes to come.

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