In schools and homes across the country yesterday young people buzzed with suspense before the revelation of their A-level grades and the discovery of whether or not they had won a place to start university in September. Always a tense and exciting time, the stakes were hugely raised this year by the desperation of many students to start university ahead of the rise in tuition fees planned for 2012.

When the UCAS ‘Track’ website, designed to enable students to log in and check the status of their university offers, crashed under unprecedented traffic, many students were left waiting for hours before they were able to discover whether their university places had been confirmed. One student, whose grades were just under those required for her place, described the situation as “just chaos” as she tried desperately to contact her university to discover whether or not she would still be accepted. UCAS apologised, but explained that the level of traffic to the website was an enormous four times higher than at the same time last year. The pressure to start university before the new raised fees are implemented next year has clearly been very high indeed for this year’s A-level students.

To add to the pressure, the number of A-level passes increased yet again for the 29th consecutive year, with the number of A*s also rising. Hundreds of students found themselves denied places despite achieving outstanding results, with some achieving three A grades and yet failing to win an offer. Emmanuel Okoghenu, a London student who had been promised a scholarship to study law at LSE found his offer withdrawn when he failed to achieve an A*, in spite of his three A grades. He explained that for students from tighter financial backgrounds, it is not as simple as just going through clearing to find another place, as moving away from London would force him to commit to extra maintenance costs he simply would not be able to afford.

Even those who were keen to use the clearing system to find a place faced a chaotic challenge, with enormous competition meaning that the remaining places available were far fewer than in previous years, leaving 7500 extra students out in the cold.

With UCAS administrators and clearing call centres describing their services as “inundated” and overstretched, one can only begin to imagine the chaos likely to erupt this time next year, when the entire process will be massively complicated by the different tuition fees and financial arrangements offered by each individual university. With the government’s higher education policy already criticised for beginning to “unravel”, and gaping holes already appearing in its execution, one wonders how well its creators can possibly have prepared for the administrative nightmare that lies ahead.