England's funding council has countered suggestions that the fall in the number of students gaining top grades at A level could lead to fewer higher education places overall as a result of the government's AAB policy.
As Times Higher Education went to press, the latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service showed that the number of applicants accepted by English universities had declined by around 7 per cent compared with the same point last year - from 368,011 to 341,604.
New factors in the admissions process this year are the core-and-margin system, which has allocated more places to further education colleges, and the AAB system, which allows universities to enrol unlimited numbers of students achieving those grades or better in A levels or the equivalent qualifications.
In implementing the AAB policy, the Higher Education Funding Council for England estimated how many students would gain AAB or above for 2012-13 entry - around 80,000 - and then deducted the places from the sector's cap on undergraduate numbers. Hefce and the government did not want the policy to raise overall student numbers, which would mean extra costs for the taxpayer.
Within its estimate, Hefce assumed growth of 4,000 in the number of AAB+ students from a 2010-11 baseline figure.
But this year, the trend for higher grades stalled after a warning from examinations watchdog Ofqual of the need to "manage" the trend of "persistent grade inflation". The proportion of A-level entries with grade A or above fell to 26.6 per cent, lower than the 2009 level.
The numbers game
Dan Shaffer, senior project officer at advisory body Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, cautioned that a clear view of admissions trends would come only after detailed analysis. But he said it would be significant if Hefce had misforecast growth in AABs. "If [growth] hasn't happened, then those are places that can't be filled because [those students] won't have AAB and have been taken out of the student number control."
Hefce also allocated the most selective universities a "protected core" of non-AAB places - at least 20 per cent of their 2011-12 places - to safeguard widening access. Mr Shaffer said that if institutions did not fill these places, it could be another factor potentially leading to fewer numbers across the sector.
Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, said it was too soon to know how the drop in top grades might affect admissions. It "could lead to fewer students enrolled compared with the past few years - but that's already likely because of a trimming-back of student number controls earlier in the year", he said.
In addition, some have raised questions over whether students will want to take up core-and-margin places in further education colleges, an issue still playing out in clearing.
"Many FE colleges were worried about hitting numbers earlier in the summer. Drops there could make the overall numbers admitted look comparatively lower than in previous years," Mr Westwood said.
If such scenarios were played out and numbers were lost, "ministers may then be worried that the two competitive mechanisms haven't functioned very effectively", he added.
A Hefce spokesman said it understood that "overall numbers of AAB+ equivalent students have been broadly maintained compared with 2011-12. This is achievable through the recruitment of students who gained A levels in earlier years or who have taken other qualifications ... in our list of equivalences."
The spokesman stressed that Hefce's assumption of 4,000 extra AAB students was based on a 2010-11 baseline. "As such, we do not have reason at present to believe that our estimates of the AAB+ equivalent population will mean fewer HE places being available across the sector than planned," he added.
On the phones: 'we may be in clearing a little longer this year'
For Lynn Grimes, director of marketing and UK student recruitment at London South Bank University, the first day of clearing started at 4am. She was up before daybreak to do an interview for LBC Radio, having recorded the previous evening advice for students to be aired on BBC's Radio 5 live.
Before she headed off at lunchtime for another tour of broadcasting studios, she explained to Times Higher Education the opportunities and challenges posed by the most complex and crucial round of clearing ever.
"[Tuition] fees don't appear to be a deterrent at all," she said. "It's the AAB [policy] that has complicated it this year. Universities themselves don't truthfully understand it."
Speaking to Ms Grimes and the 75 staff members on the phones in London South Bank's clearing room, the effect of the policy - which allows unlimited recruitment of students with grades of AAB or above at A level - quickly became clear.
Many students who narrowly missed AAB grades were turning to London South Bank because their first-choice institutions were being less lenient this year.
Esther Perea, subject area leader for mechanical and manufacturing engineering, said that she had offered a place to a student who had hoped to go to the University of Bristol but had missed the threshold with grades of ABC.
This year, London South Bank was seeking to fill 23 per cent of its places via clearing, slightly less than normal.
Under-recruitment was not a particular fear for management, but the university, like all others, had to be wary of breaching its cap on undergraduate numbers: in 2010-11, it was slapped with a £2.2 million fine for over-recruiting.
To maintain this careful balance, senior managers kept a close eye on how places were being filled - faculty deans and Phil Cardew, the university's pro vice-chancellor (academic), gathered for an assessment halfway through the day.
Although the focus of clearing is on students' struggle for places, those manning the phones faced their own endurance test.
With more than 100 telephonists in a single room, each at a computer, it was swelteringly hot. Energy drinks and sandwiches were wheeled in to keep everyone fed and watered. The call handlers were there until 8pm, and they repeated the 12-hour shift the next day.
According to Ms Grimes, those offered places through clearing wanted "to take their time over it" compared with previous years. "It just might mean that we're in clearing a little longer," she added.