Universities over-recruited about 6,000 students this academic year, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has revealed.
Collectively, around 20 institutions that overshot government-imposed limits are now facing fines of more than £22 million, although this will be offset by the additional fee income.
The government warned institutions last year not to accept more students in 2009-10 than they recruited in 2008-09, or risk financial penalties.
Ministers later set fines at £3,700 per student, meaning that the 20 or so universities could see their grants cut by a total of more than £22 million. Hefce has previously estimated the total fines at about £10 million.
One of the universities affected is the University of Hertfordshire, which recruited about 553 more full-time UK students than its agreed cap.
A university spokeswoman said: “This is a result of more students accepting places than anticipated, together with an unusually low rate of withdrawal and unprecedented demand for foundation degrees at the university’s consortium of further education colleges.”
Another institution facing a hefty fine is the University of Greenwich, which estimates that it has over-recruited up to 154 students.
At a press conference to announce the 2010-11 university grant allocations on 17 March, Sir Alan Langlands, Hefce chief executive, said the council was still in discussions with the over-recruiting institutions about the levels of fines they would receive. Final figures would be announced in July, he added.
He pointed out that students’ tuition fees of £3,200 per head would offset the fines. However, Times Higher Education has learned that universities whose funding allocations were docked for over-recruitment could risk losing the sums permanently.
Papers from a Hefce board meeting in January say “categoric decisions” have not yet been made about whether adjustments to funding for 2010-11 should be permanent.
“Recurrent reductions would, of course, be a very significant price to pay by institutions for the temporary benefit of additional fee income,” the papers say.
To avoid this, universities should offset the numbers that they over-recruited in 2009-10 against their 2008-09 numbers, the board papers add.
This would mean Greenwich would have to recruit 154 fewer students in 2010-11 than it accepted in 2008-09.
If institutions do not do this “there will remain a risk that any reductions to grant for 2010-11 will also be consolidated into a lower baseline for subsequent years”, Hefce warns.
A Hefce spokesman said: “If a university’s grant is reduced for having over-recruited in 2009-10 then this may (whole or in part) be repeated in 2010-11, unless they recruit below their control total in 2010-11.”