A boom in student numbers has left the United Kingdom’s university system creaking.

Students doubling up in bunk beds, night-time lectures and overflowing seminars are set to be a feature of the new academic term as British universities stretch themselves to the limit in preparation for the biggest ever intake of freshers this week.

The “no vacancies” signs have gone up at university halls and students are being farmed out to private apartments to ensure everyone has a bed for freshers’ week. Exeter University in southwest England has had to convert single bedrooms into double accommodation. About 200 students will spend their first year sleeping in bunk beds, with rent discounted from GBP170 a week to GBP110.

Other universities have scheduled extra lectures at night and increased class sizes to accommodate the boom in numbers. The record-breaking year comes after a 10 per cent rise in applications and a decision by the government to expand the number of places by 13,000, fuelled in part by more people wanting to study in the recession.

But the lure of a degree has put unprecedented pressure on the system, with a massive backlog in student loan payments, and thousands of students will have to wait at least a month for their money after a 17 per cent rise in applications for financial support.

The extra demand for loans could also put a strain on the public purse because the proportion of freshers applying has shot up as their parents have been hit by the declining economy.

Freshers’ week at most universities starts today. But at several institutions not all students have been allocated a place in halls of residence.

Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, said: “There is a real pressure on accommodation, particularly on halls of residence. Where in previous years [students] have been guaranteed a place, this year they are turning to the private rented sector.” The situation is particularly uncertain this year because there has also been a rise in applications from international students, prompted partly by the weak pound making it cheaper to study in the U.K. But universities are unsure how many will arrive at the beginning of term after a new visa system threatened delays.

Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 group, which represents 19 research-intensive institutions, said that the situation at most universities would be manageable. “Accommodation is the biggest potential for difficulty,” he said. “It may be that classes end up being slightly bigger than in the past. Universities will respond flexibly.”


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