THES reporters on the annual race of students for places which gets under way this week with hurdles for both sides.
Funding targets are set. Students have their marks. And they're off. With yesterday's publication of A-level results the ten-day clearing steeplechase begins in earnest.
Universities have had two years to practise hitting their quota of students within a 1 per cent margin of error. Teesside University was fined Pounds 500,000 in 1994 for over-recruiting 300 students. Last year, it lost funding for under-recruiting the same number. A spokesman said: "The message has gone out to everyone responsible for admissions. This is a crucial year for recruiting. We have to get it right."
Wolverhampton has hit its targets for two years running and is confident of doing so again. Keith Hall, senior education guidance officer, said: "We're better organised this year. The telephones are sorted, our teams are in place and they all know if they don't make their targets we miss funding, which is a very good spur."
The handicap is that racing conditions are changing continually.
First, clearing has begun earlier this year. Applicants with BTECs and advanced GNVQs have already left the starting blocks and some 340 have been placed.
Next, A-level results are significantly better, which should mean more applicants achieving their conditional offers and fewer turning to clearing.
The number of choices open to candidates has also dropped from eight to six. Not only does this mean each university has received fewer applications, but it seems applicants have been more focused in making their choices. As a result universities have rejected fewer candidates and have experienced a much better take-up rate.
Threats of entry levies and top-up fees could also prove a factor. Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, has warned students considering taking a gap year that they could risk having to pay for their education in 1997.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals has threatened a Pounds 300 entry levy and top-up fees are being considered by a handful of universities including Birmingham and the LSE.
Cost already appears to play more of a part than it used to in choice of institution. One in ten people eligible for higher education dropped out of the admissions process altogether last year - many to earn extra money before embarking on courses.
Figures released by UCAS show 46 per cent of students chose to study close to home in 1995, compared with 42 per cent the previous year. The trend is likely to increase not only for financial reasons but because more institutions are recruiting locally.
Students have already become more streetwise about clearing, ringing up institutions five minutes after collecting their results, which has speeded up the process.
Then, there is the World Wide Web. For the first time a substantial number of institutions will be advertising information about vacancies over the Internet. Another high-tech aid to recruitment is the video service offered by Buckinghamshire College of Higher Education, for candidates unable to make open days.
Applicants without a place have been invited to spend their August Bank Holiday at the Business Design Centre in Islington, London, where more than 70 universities and colleges will be touting for business. Some will be able to sign up for courses on the spot.
New tricks to improve performance in the clearing race could soon prove redundant, however. UCAS, the CVCP and the Department for Education and Employment are all looking at ways to make applications less of a fight to the finish.