THIS summer's clearing looks set to be the fiercest scramble yet for students as some university and college departments have a lot of ground to make up to meet recruitment targets.
Although applications for 1998 are expected to be down less than 3 per cent overall, some subjects, even in arts and humanities, are facing unexpectedly large slumps.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said applications were more volatile than usual, with subjects such as computer science gaining 13 per cent more students than last year. Normally buoyant disciplines, such as English, sociology and even history, were declining in popularity.
He said: "No one yet understands why this is happening. Clearing will certainly be intriguing this year."
Rises and falls appear to be randomly distributed among subjects that have been steady until now.
Psychology, for instance, which has been growing in popularity, is down more than 7 per cent compared with last year, as is biology. Sociology departments have been surprised by an 11.6 per cent drop in applications. Social work is down 13.6. per cent.
Combined humanities and arts programmes have slipped by more than 16 per cent, with engineering and technology combinations experiencing a 15 per cent fall. History applications are down almost 3 per cent and English applications 7 per cent, reversing earlier trends.
Some subjects are doing better than last year, including sports science (up 6.2 per cent), design studies (up almost 10 per cent), pharmacy (up 3.6 per cent) and marketing (up 17.6 per cent).
Rick Rylance, secretary of the Council for College and University English, said it was too early to gauge the full impact as the spread was even across universities.
The Association of Graduate Recruiters said sixth-formers were probably reacting to the job market. Salaries are highest in the financial services. IT graduates are still in great demand and salaries are being inflated by the need for specialists to address the year 2000 problem so is was a temporary blip.