You've got the grades: how do you fancy £25k of debt?

student loan documents

A-level results have been announced, but for many would-be students there’s little to cheer about.

On one hand, a record number of A-level students have achieved what they needed and had their university places confirmed, with almost 380,000 successful applicants, compared with 371,000 in 2009.

But the recession of the past couple of years has meant more teenagers opting for higher education, in preference to facing a tight job market. Some 673,000 put in their applications for a university course to start in September, 12% up on 2009’s record level. 

Indeed, Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, which manages university applications, described 2010 as ‘perhaps the most competitive year for HE admissions in the last ten years’.

So there are an awful lot of disappointed pupils too. According to UCAS, around 180,000 students are chasing places through the clearing system, having failed to secure the required A level grades or to get a university offer in the first place. 

So far it’s not clear how many vacancies there will be through clearing, because students have not yet all committed themselves to a particular course. But UCAS says there are around 18,500 courses with at least one place available (and some may have several, depending on the university and the course in question). 

Clearly, though, competition for these places is intense. To put it into perspective, in 2009 only 135,000 went through clearing, competing for 32,000 available places. 

The debt burden

Even for the successful applicants, who start their studies in September, there are major headaches ahead, as the financial pressure on students and their families intensifies. For advice about student finances read our guide.

According to the Association of Investment Companies’ annual survey of attitudes to student debt, those starting university this autumn will emerge from university with almost £25,000 of debt on average. 

And the students are not comfortable with that situation, despite the fact student loans don't have to be repaid until they earn at least £15,000 a year.  The AIC survey found a third are prepared to prioritise jobs offering good pay over career vocation in order to pay down their student loans more quickly.

Nor are the students questioned in the survey convinced that their higher qualifications will stand them in good stead when it comes to finding work after graduation. Indeed, 55% worry that they will not be able to get a job at all. 

That’s a valid concern, if this year’s recruitment experience is anything to go by. The Association of Graduate Recruiters reported in July that the number of graduate vacancies has dropped by 7% over the 2009/10 recruiting season, with almost 80% of employers insisting on a 2:1 degree as a minimum. Every graduate job attracts on average almost 70 applications compared to 49 in 2009 and only 31 in 2008.  

So, if your heart is in your boots at the thought of the hoops to be jumped through just to get an education and a job, what are the alternatives? 

Other options

Apprenticeships have attracted much media attention recently, with universities minister David Willetts making much of the opportunities available there.  "University is not the only route into well-paid and fulfilling work - that is why we are also investing so much in further education and 50,000 extra high-quality apprenticeships," he said. 

It’s just a shame there’s likely to be so much competition for those places too – at least if BT’s training scheme is anything to go by. It announced this week that it had received nearly 24,000 applications for 221 apprenticeship positions – up from 9,000 last year.

So it’s not an easy option. Nonetheless, it seems both industries and individual employers are increasingly interested in getting involved. The National Apprenticeship Service (NAS) says that more than 100,000 employers across a wide range of sectors offer apprenticeships, from tourism and retail to the prison service and the insurance industry. Find out more at


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