Sixth-form exam reforms are threatening to widen the divide between old and new universities, experts warned this week.
The first set of results from teenagers taking the new Curriculum 2000 courses showed the numbers taking AS levels rising sharply while A-level entries declined. It appeared that thousands of students had abandoned courses after a year and taken an extra AS level.
Admissions experts said the trend would limit the number of candidates with the three A levels required by most leading universities. But students with a wider range of qualifications would still amass the points needed to secure places at universities using the new Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff.
Many old universities offered places to students on the basis of A-level grades, while virtually all new universities made their offers on the basis of points. Under the new tariff system, two AS levels are of equal worth to one A level.
The number of people taking A levels has dropped by 6 per cent and the number of passes is also down. Meanwhile, the number of students taking AS levels is up 25 per cent.
Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Liverpool and an adviser to MPs on the education select committee, said: "There will be some people presenting with A levels and others with AS levels and, while you might have the same number of points, clearly a one-year course won't cover the same material in the same depth. I would question whether this is an adequate platform for a three-year university degree. The divide is already there and the differentiation reflects the demand from students. The thing that affects the quality of the course is the ability of the students who are on it."
Tom Wilson, head of the universities department at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "These exam results could well have the unintended consequence of recreating the binary divide, which is completely against the original intention to broaden, not narrow, choice.
"Whether students take A levels or AS levels depends on which school or college they attend. This reinforces the problem of disadvantaged kids being concentrated in new universities. It's not remotely what Curriculum 2000 is designed for."
Some 11,000 fewer people passed A levels, yet an extra 18,228 student places are available for the coming academic year. In previous years, old universities have expanded at the expense of new universities.
Even those who have done worse than expected may find that they can secure places at the country's top universities, because institutions have extra places to fill to meet the government's student-expansion targets. Most leading institutions are offering places through clearing this year.
A statement from the Joint Council for General Qualifications attributed the decline in A-level entries to "students making decisions about their A-level results on the basis of their achievements at AS".
The number of students taking A-level maths slumped by almost a fifth this year, after the pass rate at AS level proved too tough for many last year. Last year, the AS failure rate for maths was 29 per cent - more than twice the average failure rate for other subjects.