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Confusion hits graduate places

The volatility in applications for higher education places next session continued in the past week as universities stressed they were still in the dark about final figures.

The closing date for submissions to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service was December 15, and applications in the UK as a whole were 6 per cent down on the same time last year. The Scottish figure is thought to be in line.

But UCAS pointed out that a third of applications were classified as "late" last year. The service, which acts as the clearing house for applications, said that 52,300 forms - 16 per cent of the total - had been received in the four days leading up to the closing date.

Tony Higgins, its chief executive, described this as an "unprecedented deluge". The service also pointed out that December 15 was not a deadline, simply the point after which applications start being classed as "late" which means universities and colleges no longer guarantee to consider applications.

UCAS also stresses that the figures are being compared with the same time last year when 26,000 extra students were accepted to help them avoid the tuition fee charges being introduced next year.

The total figure of 326,220 applications received by UCAS refers to forms submitted by prospective students. Since each student names on average five institutions of their choice, the final picture is particularly unclear. The confusion is reinforced this year since, as of December 12, a total of 63,671 forms were not processed which means the universities named on them were unknown. UCAS has been receiving 10,000 applications a day.

Roddy Livingstone of Strathclyde University's business school, who represents the Scottish institutions on the UCAS board, stressed the fluidity of both the overall and the individual application figures.

A spokesman for St Andrews University, which has been variously quoted as having fewer and greater applications than last December, said calculating losses or gains at this stage was "meaningless and irrelevant" because the picture was changing daily.

The University of Abertay Dundee, where estimates of the number of applications have gone from a drop of 27 per cent to 18 per cent to 16 per cent, takes a similar line. A spokesman said it had been making strenuous attempts to counter the confusion surrounding changes to student finance.

With 65 per cent of its students coming from Tayside and Fife, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, Abertay estimates only a quarter will pay the full means-tested Pounds 1,000 annual tuition fee.

Edinburgh University, which would expect 35,000 students to apply for 3,000 places, faced an 8 per cent decline by December 12. A spokesman said while the university was not complacent, it was "not unduly concerned".

The Scottish Office has issued a brochure explaining the new arrangements, while UCAS and the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals have jointly issued 400,000 copies of an explanatory leaflet. Mr Higgins said he hoped the information would generate "considerable additional numbers of applications".

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