An eleventh-hour attempt by the Government to stem the stampede for the last free university places by waiving tuition fees for almost 20,000 "gap-year" students may still leave thousands of well-qualified hopefuls without a place. It may also leave the higher education sector out of pocket.
The Government has waived tuition fees for all students who "already have an agreed deferred entry place for university in 1998". Last month secretary of state David Blunkett announced that all entrants to higher education from October 1998 would have to pay a Pounds 1,000-a-year fee for tuition, with reduced contributions from students from poorer families.
It was unclear how much the U-turn would cost the sector. A Department for Education and Employment spokeswoman said it would cost Pounds 10-11 million and that the money would have to be found from existing DFEE resources, not new money.
But Paul Cottrell, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said the cost to universities could be higher: "The Government must compensate universities for lost income. If they don't they will turn a student funding gap into an institutional funding gap."
The Government U-turn follows fears that gap students who had already committed themselves to entering university in 1998, making the decision before the plans for fees were announced, would be able to mount a legal challenge. It was also feared that the spectre of tuition fees would create a scramble for the last free places.
Late on Wednesday night, just hours before students were due to get their A-level results, higher education minister Tessa Blackstone said: "I have decided that students who have an agreed firm or conditional deferred entry place for 1998 - taking a 'gap-year' - will be treated as if they are entering higher education in 1997."
Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, welcomed the announcement but pointed out that that there were another 70,000 college applicants who had arranged to take a gap year without formally securing a place in advance and who would not be eligible for the fees amnesty. Many would still try to join this week's clearing rush. Admissions officers fear that there will be a crisis regardless of the Government's change of mind.
Early figures show that there are 310,000 university places for at least 434,000 applicants this year. Applications have risen by at least 3,000 in the past week, and are expected to rise further as students digest their A-level results.
The rush to avoid fees will be exacerbated by an unprecedented A-level pass rate. The results, released this week, show a 5.2 per cent increase in candidates. More than 87 per cent passed, up from 86 per cent last year.
David Burghes, admissions specialist at the University of Exeter's school of education, said there was a "disastrous" triple problem. "Many people will not find a place. Many people will be on courses they're not suited to. And next year there may be no students at all," he said. "It will be chaos."
Admissions officers confirmed they were expecting to turn away candidates. "We usually have a few hundred places in clearing, but this year's A-level results are good, so we haven't got as many," said Dick Collins, director of admissions at Lancaster University.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals said the Government's move was a "welcome concession".
A-level results and gapstudents, page 3