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Race to beat fees continues unabated

The scramble for university places showed no sign of relenting this week, as new figures showed late applications still coming in at 850 per day.

University admissions statistics showed huge increases in the number of people trying to join courses before the imposition of fees, and indicated that the higher education system would overshoot its admissions targets by up to 35,000 students.

More than 312,000 people have already gained university places this year - up 39,000 on September 1996 - outstripping the admission target of 310,000.

A squeeze on entries is likely for 1998 as universities cut their intake to meet Government limits on average student numbers. Admissions officers believe this will coincide with a drop in applications when fees are first charged.

Pressure is also mounting for ministers to announce full details of next year's fees and loans package.

Applications for 1998 are well under way, with the deadline for Oxbridge on October 15. Candidates for other universities have until December 15 to apply.

Douglas Trainer, president of the National Union of Students, said students were being asked to take a "leap in the dark".

Mr Trainer predicted chaos in universities next month as they absorb the extra numbers. "There are real questions about the lack of resources and the quality of education these people will receive. An extra 35,000 students is not a blip, it's a crisis."

Meanwhile, students from 2,000 schools will make the first university applications through cyberspace this year.

A revolutionary new system will allow people to complete their application on computers. Software developed by UCAS is designed to lead students through the process, and correct simple errors. Schools will send applications on a computer disk, or via the Internet using a code protection originally designed to preserve military secrets.

Admissions chiefs predict the system could eventually allow people to choose a degree, select a university, apply and even receive offers over the information superhighway.

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