Anxious students gathered outside Sir George Monoux College in Walthamstow, east London on Thursday of last week, as they did at colleges and sixth forms up and down Britain.
Many were worried about finding out how they did in their A-level exams. But frantic competition for dwindling university places made the experience much more stressful.
Students at the college had to wait until 10.30am to get their results. Many were trying to access the Ucas university admissions website on their mobiles as they waited, desperate to find out if their place was safe.
Others rushed out to phone the “clearing” hotline to try to secure one of the places left for students who did not get the grades required for a guaranteed place. But clearing places began to fill up much earlier in the day.
Charlotte Parslow is a senior lecturer and admissions tutor at the University of East London. “The phones have been ringing continuously,” she said. “As soon as you’ve spoken to one applicant, you put the phone down and it’s ringing again.”
Thousands of college students will be prevented from going to university – not because they haven’t got the right results but because the places simply are not there.
Naina stood chatting with a friend outside the college as she waited to go in. She said that students faced a much harder situation today than in the past.
“My sister got her degree seven years ago and at that time lots of students took gap years before going to university,” she said.
“But you can’t risk it now – you just have to concentrate on getting a degree to get a job. And nobody has any money to go travelling anyway.”
Roxane added, “There’s a lot more pressure to do well in exams. I haven’t slept with worrying about it.
“My mum says don’t worry because there will be more important things to worry about in the future but at the moment this is my world.”
The crisis facing young people is hitting the poorest people the hardest.
Leroy was waiting outside the college while his daughter went in for her results. “We rang one of the universities that my daughter wants to go to this morning to ask about clearing. It was already full.
“Some parents I know have children going to college in more affluent areas and they were told to be at the gates at 7am to pick up their results. I watched students get their results on the TV news this morning.
“Yet we have to wait until 10.30 – and the places are already gone.”
New Labour says that education is a priority. Gordon Brown promotes education and “reskilling” as the solution to the recession. Yet education isn’t an option for many people and universities are still more likely to admit rich students than poor ones.
“New Labour has created a market in education,” says Leroy. “There’s a lot of talk about ‘widening participation’ but universities aren’t accountable about who they take in.
“I was shocked when I went to an open day at one university and they said that 70 percent of their intake was from private schools.
“The government should tell universities that they must reflect the communities they are in.”
Up to 100,000 people who apply to university will not get a place this year. The government has capped university places despite the fact that more people want to go than ever before.
For many, the effort put into passing A-levels will get them nowhere.
“Being a student is tough and tiring,” said Shema. “It’s harder trying to get into university than it is doing the A‑levels. And it’s such a long process.”
“There should be recognition for people who don’t get their A-level grades so that all that hard work isn’t wasted,” said Natasha. “And there shouldn’t just be more funding for universities – there should be more universities.”
For young people who don’t get into university, the alternative is to look for a job. But many students found it impossible to find even part-time work while they studied.
“I’ve applied for about 100 jobs and not been offered one,” said Jasmine. “It’s not fair that we have to compete with people who’ve got experience for jobs. I don’t have any experience but how am I supposed to get any? It’s really hard for young people.”
“I’ve handed my CV to places around Walthamstow and have had no luck,” added Andrew.
“I’m starting to feel the pressure now and I’m not sure what I want to do. If you think about it, our whole future is on the line with these results.”
Life is hard enough for students who do get the grades and have to compete for university places and jobs. For those who don’t, the future is bleak.
“It’s so hard now if you don’t have any qualifications. There’s so much pressure,” said Imran. “If you fail, then you’ve got nowhere to go.”