Students who fail to make their A-level grades next year may be able to secure a university place for less money than students who performed better in the exams, it has emerged.
Universities will be able to offer "bargain-basement deals" during the final clearing rush for degree places in 2006, despite fears that charging some students more for the same degree would be unfair and would prompt complaints from undergraduates and parents. The Office for Fair Access confirmed that it would not prevent universities from lowering fees or increasing bursaries during the August clearing process to try to attract students to "fill gaps".
The decision could see students whose A-level results match their university entry offers paying the full £3,000 tuition fees or receiving smaller bursaries than students who fail to make the grade and rely on clearing for a place.
The National Union of Students accused the regulator of "taking a back seat" and allowing a system of "mass inequalities" to develop. The NUS also claimed that changing fees and bursaries would create even more confusion for students.
Nevertheless, Offa warned universities that there could be "adverse effects" on the applications system as a whole if discounts became a regular feature of clearing - by creating a financial incentive for students to wait until August to apply for a place.
The regulator said: "We are aware that institutions may need to address fee levels and bursary support to fill gaps at clearing. Institutions can do this but should be aware that if it becomes clear to potential applicants that there may be discounts in clearing, then this could affect following cycles.
"Institutions could adjust their fees below the levels set out in their access agreements and could offer bursaries or other financial support of more than that set out in their agreement and they would not need to alter their access agreement to do so."
Michael Driscoll, chairman of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, the body that represents new institutions, said: "I think it would be rather odd to charge those who first applied to your university more than those who came through clearing.
"I find it hard to imagine that happening - it's more likely that if universities do discount in clearing it would be for the whole cohort on that course."
Chris Grayling, Tory higher education spokesman, said that universities that offered large discounts during clearing ran a risk of damaging their reputation.
"Offering discounts through clearing would be the logical conclusion of the flawed system that the Government has created," Mr Grayling said.
David Rendel, higher education spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, added:
"This proves what we have said all the way along about the inequities of the market system with crazy anomalies in which the danger is that some students pay more than others for the same course."
Hannah Essex, NUS vice-president for education, said that discounting at clearing would make it increasingly likely that students would choose courses on financial grounds rather than based on their interests or aptitude.
"While the rest of the sector is working towards creating a fair and transparent admissions process, the body that is supposed to be regulating access is taking a back-seat approach and allowing mass inequalities to form. It is likely that some students will take a bargain-basement approach to courses, waiting until clearing before making choices," she said.