Students would be better off financially if they entered higher education this autumn rather than next - contrary to government advice - MPs heard this week.
Alissa Goodman, of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, told the Commons Education and Skills Select Committee that the best system for students as a whole, taking into account any graduate repayments, was the one that would be applied to those entering higher education this autumn.
Students starting courses will be charged £1,200 and will be eligible for loans and a maintenance grant of up to £1,500.
Ms Goodman's evidence contrasts with government claims that students will be better off under the scheme to be introduced from autumn 2006. Under the plans, students will be better off while they are studying - with a maintenance grant of up to £2,700 - but worse off once they have graduated, notching up tuition-fee debts of £9,000.
Ms Goodman said: "They would do better this year because they can benefit from a £1,500 grant and they do not have to pay back a top-up fee later in life."
Competition for places this autumn will be fierce, not least because many students are keen to escape top-up fees.
Applications made by the January 15 deadline through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service were up 8.9 per cent compared with last year.
This comes alongside a growth of 1.2 per cent in the school-leaving population.
Despite the pressure, the Government has allowed only a 1.4 per cent increase in funded places. Every English vice-chancellor has received a letter from the Higher Education Funding Council for England warning them that the university wills be fined £4,000 for every student recruited over their maximum permitted number.
Admissions tutors were warned this week that the acute shortage of places for university hopefuls this year was forcing some institutions to act in "morally suspect" ways.
At the Careers Research Advisory Centre conference on admissions to higher education at Keele University, Tim Wheeler, principal of University College Chester, said: "Clearly, this autumn, there is a significant underprovision of places.
"Institutions that are oversubscribed have little room to manoeuvre. They are going to have to make much higher offers and be even more specific about which subjects they want the grades in.
"That is the only way they can legally control admissions. It may be legal, but it is morally suspect. For someone majoring in English, it might be right to ask for an A grade in A-level English but whether they need an A in history and a B in German is less germane."
* There will be no tick-box question on whether an applicant is a member of the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth next year, Ucas has announced. Instead, applicants will be asked to refer to membership in their personal statements.