A week in the life of a university clearing team

The student had four A-levels and a points score of 30 but she had still been rejected by two universities to study dentistry.

The hotline at Surrey University was advising her on her options. She spoke to an admissions tutor, and one possibility was a course in medical microbiology. "The clinical courses are so competitive that people often decide to do medically-related courses instead," said Alexandra Byron, an educational liaison officer. "That's definitely a 'yes'. She will get an offer of a place as soon as she gets her clearing form in."

This student is one of the lucky ones; many others have not been offered places. The free telephone hotline, operating since the A-level results were published last week, has been "fairly manic" according to John Wright, another Surrey University educational liaison officer. The phones have not stopped ringing as students and their parents have been enquiring about places. Clearing is always a tense time, but this year has been even more fraught because of the dithering and then eventual U-turn by the Government over the funding of gap-year students.

"It's much, much busier this year," said Mr Wright. "But in many areas we are just full up and so we try to suggest alternatives. We advise students of other universities and sometimes give them the specific name of someone they should talk to. We talk to our colleagues and are more friendly than many think. "

The team often acts more as a counselling than a placement service. Last Saturday, Surrey held an Open Day when people could come in, look at the campus and talk to admissions tutors. One young person, who hadn't actually applied to go to university, came in with her father. "She'd put off going to university for two years," said Robin Knapp, on the hotline team. "She had a job as a secretary and was frightened of jacking it in, worried she might not get a job after graduating. She had lost her confidence." She eventually left two hours later, having been given the courage to try.

Another student wanted a place on the sound recording course, which was full. "But he really wanted to come to Surrey, so now he is enquiring about a place in maths," said Mr Wright. A student with good grades (BBE) was seeking a place on a law course. Although Surrey does not offer a straight law course, it does teach law with languages, such as law and French. The student did not have an A-level in French but her GCSEs revealed an aptitude for languages, with excellent passes in French, Latin and German. She was offered a place in law and Russian.

Many of the students are understandably confused about the fees situation and are anxious not just about this year but about the duration of their course. Even existing students have been asking whether the fees will apply to them, said Peter Beardsley, Surrey's academic registrar.

Dr Ian Hamerton, admissions tutor for chemistry, is much happier if he can talk to students face-to-face. "It is time-consuming but if they have missed their grades I like to talk to them about why they felt things went wrong. Many peak at GCSE, then have a lull at A-level. You may well find that that A-level performance is an indicator of the first year of a degree course but not for the overall degree classification. I look at people's enthusiasm for the course.

"In the past people have come to university not sure about what they wanted to do. I think that will now change. People will now look more specifically at how they can improve their career prospects. They will be strongly committed to their courses."

John Wall, admissions tutor for economics, said: "Everything has happened much quicker this year. But the telephone is not a good way of conducting this process. Everything is so compressed. So many decisions are made on the hoof.

"As for next year, well, I teach forecasting, but I do not know what will happen. The bulk of those who would have applied will still do so. It is the marginal candidates I worry about, those with the ability but concerned about making this kind of commitment at 17 or 18.

"If they are going to import this American system, then give us 18 years to save for it; we did not even get 18 months. If you have got three children you are looking at a financial nightmare. Normally systems are undermined, but this time something has just been whipped away. It really is the proverbial bolt out of the blue.

A lot of students, he says, will need to supplement their income. "There must come the point where additional hours of paid employment will diminish a student's ability to do a course."

In common with many, he favours a post-A-level admissions system. "The only reason we have this long break in August is because the kids were needed to help with the harvest. Have you seen much of that happening recently?"

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