The new recruits

This year's new undergraduates are troublemakers: they caused headaches in UK universities before they even arrived.

This September saw a record 10 per cent increase in applications for university, partly due to the rise in mature students returning to full-time study as a result of the recession. However, education ministers were also forced to introduce a cap on student numbers after discovering a £200m hole in their budget last autumn. This meant that there would be only 3,000 extra places at university but, by some estimates, an additional 50,000 people chasing them.

In an attempt to ease the admissions problem, the Government announced in July an emergency 10,000 extra places at universities in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses. However, it did not offer the universities full funding to cover the extra teaching costs. As a result, 11 universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and King’s College London, Bristol and Liverpool, declined the offer.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents 20 elite universities, said: "Maintaining quality is sacrosanct. Subjects like engineering and science are particularly expensive to teach and we know that there is already a funding shortfall for teaching at Russell Group universities."

Dr Jane Taylor is associate dean for undergraduate teaching at Lancaster University. She likewise identifies serious flaws in the scheme. “I think I would welcome the idea of more places for STEM students. However, the lack of resources to support these places is disappointing, given that such degrees require a significant practical element which make them relatively expensive to deliver. This policy therefore would not be one that could be sustained. Having more students with less unit resource would eventually impact on the quality of the learning experience for all STEM students, both funded and unfunded.”

In principle, any extra places for STEM students are welcome. Figures from UCAS released over the summer showed a 10.8 per cent rise in the numbers wanting to take maths degrees and impressive rises in applications for chemical engineering (18 per cent) and mechanical engineering (19.1 per cent).

In a press statement, business secretary Lord Mandelson, who is responsible for universities, said: "By making available extra places in science, technology and maths we are not only helping more individuals with the ambition and ability to go to university but also investing in the country's future."

But how has this pledge to STEM students affected this summer’s admissions scramble in practice?

Plymouth is one university that put in a successful bid for additional places, with the result that 232 extra students have embarked upon a variety of STEM courses. University of Plymouth vice-chancellor Professor Wendy Purcell said: “With unprecedented competition for university places in an economic climate where skills and qualifications have never been so important, it is vital that the region’s young people have access to higher education -  and in particular STEM and business subjects.”

At the chalkface, though, the story is slightly different. Stephen Quayle is admissions tutor at Lancaster University's engineering department. “It’s difficult to say if the cap has resulted in 'thousands' being turned away, but at Lancaster we have had a significant rise in applications and as a result have been more selective about acceptances this year,” he said.

Dr Nick Savage, admissions tutor in the department of electronic and computer engineering at Portsmouth University, reports a similar experience. “Unfortunately, I have been turning away students whom I would normally have taken. I was speaking to someone during clearing who seemed very switched-on and who had done well generally but fallen down in one subject - so lost his place at his first choice and his insurance choice. I would normally love to take someone like that and I worked hard to get him a place at Portsmouth - but we stopped recruiting a while ago so it just wasn't possible. The last time I spoke to him he did not have a place anywhere.”

The news isn’t all bad, though. Dr Stuart Porter, admissions tutor at the University of York’s electronic engineering department, reported that his quota has been filled as planned, and without turning away well-qualified applicants early in the year or through clearing. “We did take a small number of applicants in clearing but didn't perceive that there were any suitably qualified ones that we were turning away.”

His concern is slightly different. “Naturally we're always delighted that there is more funding for engineering students, but I'm not sure that there are many more suitably qualified students coming out of ‘A’ levels, in particular, to go into science and engineering. I suspect that any student with grades suitable for entry to us would find a place on a good science or engineering course of their choice. Our perspective would be, as ever, that we somehow need to encourage more students to continue with appropriate subjects at an earlier age.”

And that, of course, is a whole other story.

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