With 16 years' experience handling the clearing process at Greenwich University, head of admissions Bev Woodhams is something of an old pro. But as the phone lines open on A-level results day, even she is feeling nervous. With demand for university places outstripping supply, she is expecting a record number of calls.
According to Ucas figures, at the start of clearing, there were 18,500 vacancies, down on 32,000 last year. So, with more than 180,000 candidates chasing places, competition is likely to be fierce.
Traditionally, Greenwich University's inclusive philosophy means that it has attracted many non-traditional students from nearby Lewisham, Lambeth, Medway and other local areas, including many mature students, but the squeeze on places means the student profile may start to look a little bit different. Woodhams says the university is attracting more highly qualified students through clearing than in previous years. "Things are bound to look different this year. It's a smaller pond, with more fish."
At the university's clearing centre, a chorus of ring tones can be heard well before the hotline opens at 8.30am.
During the 12-hour shift, a team of around 90 specially trained staff work flat out to recruit students for around 1,000 unfilled places at the university, as well as confirming places for those who have met their offers and handling general enquiries, including those thinking about applying to university for the first time.
As the first helpline operators take to the phones, Woodhams knows the day will be tough. Things are "definitely tighter than last year," she says, when there were 1,600 clearing vacancies – 600 more than this year.
The knock-on effect, says Steve Wallis, director of recruitment and admissions, is that whereas the clearing process used to last well into September, many courses could be closed within the week.
Woodhams is concerned that the Ucas website will not be able to cope with demand. Right on cue, at 8.20am comes the news that the Ucas site has crashed and staff can do little more than take students' details and confirm offers for those who have already applied to the university. While she may look calm, when I ask what the most stressful incident in her 16-year clearing career is, she replies "this!".
There is a another moment of panic, just after 9am, when the lights go out and the clearing centre is plunged into darkness. "All we need now is a power cut," groans Paul Butler, head of corporate information systems, who is on hand to deal with any technical issues. Fortunately, the problem is quickly resolved.
At 9.20am, the Ucas site is back up. (A spokesperson from Ucas denied there were problems with the website, saying that although it was running more slowly, "at no point did the site go down".) The room is starting to look like a trading centre, with supervisors yelling instructions and staff pacing the floor as they offer advice to worried callers. Bryony Chinnery is the first in the call centre to offer a place at the university.
Although 18-year-old Sarah Aziz has missed the A and two Bs needed to study biomedical sciences at Kings College, London, she is delighted to have been offered a place on an architecture degree course. "With all the media hype about there not being enough places to go round, I'd convinced myself I wouldn't get to university this year," she says.
Giving applicants the good news that they've been accepted on a course is a "real adrenaline rush", says Chinnery, who like many of the helpline operators, is a student at the university. But there are low points, too. "One man, who didn't meet the criteria for the course he'd applied for, told me I'd ruined his life."
By 11am, calls have peaked, with all 80 lines busy, including those in an overflow room based in another building. Calls average around 700 an hour over the lunchtime period – almost double the number received in the same time period last year. In between monitoring call levels, Wallis is keeping a close eye on student numbers and is already talking about closing clearing places on architecture degrees.
Eighteen-year-old Siavash Giahchi has been offered a place on a media and communications degree course, after missing the two Bs and a C needed to study media at Birmingham University. Like Aziz, he had convinced himself he wouldn't be able to get into university this year. "When I read in the newspaper that even students with A grades might not get places this year, I thought I wouldn't stand a chance."
Greenwich's vice-chancellor and the former higher education minister, Tessa Blackstone, says that media coverage is partly responsible for the panic. "The media has completely overhyped the story. It's demotivating for young people who may ask what the point is of trying hard. Students with good grades will get a place at university this year."
But she admits that students may need to be "more flexible", both in terms of their chosen institution and their course. The impact of the recession on aspirations to go to university has been completely underestimated, she says, and is one of the main reasons for the increase in applications this year.
For 21-year-old Chris Garrett, who secured a place to study chemistry, the course was more important than the university. While he has good enough A-levels to apply to "a more prestigious university," he has chos en Greenwich because it's local for him and, so he has heard, classes are smaller and teaching is excellent. "Twenty or 30 years ago, if you had a degree it was really something. Nowadays having a degree is practically as common as having GCSEs, so the institution you study at is becoming less relevant. You really need a 2:1 or a first in a useful subject."
At 3pm, call centre staff report a lot of "panic phoning" , with students unable to access confirmation of offers on the Ucas website (which has, apparently, crashed again) ringing in for reassurance.
I catch up with Woodhams again at 8pm, just as the phone lines are closing. Ucas released clearing reference numbers earlier than advised, which meant that the 5pm "surge" she was concerned about did not happen. It's been a busy day, with 6,851 calls to the clearing hotline , considerably up on the 5,100 received last year.
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