Universities are developing a two-tier system of degree programmes in an effort to mop up applicants to over-subscribed courses during clearing.
About 10,000 new or amended courses are on offer through the University and Colleges Admissions Service this year. Many have been specially devised to appeal to applicants failing to reach the high grades needed for subjects such as law, medicine or business studies. It means institutions can maintain standards on these popular courses without losing students.
One option for universities is to combine a course such as law or the media with the less popular but better funded sciences. The development of modularisation has increased the trend. Students often benefit because it means they do not have to narrow down their choices too soon.
But Joe Ruston, chairman of Mander Portman Woodward tutorial colleges, which has conducted a survey showing employers tended to favour candidates from well-established universities, warned students to be circumspect. He said it was likely businesses would also favour particular courses.
"Usually anything with the word 'studies' in it rings alarm bells in employers' minds," he said. "Students must make sure they know what the course actually involves. You can call a course one thing but the content may be very different."
A spokesman for the University of Westminster, which has just started a BSc in complementary therapies, said the university was aiming at students with a genuine interest in the subject although "failed medics" could apply. Candidates will need two A level passes, in any subject.
Other new alternatives to popular subjects include a science and the media course at Royal Holloway College, part of the University of London. This is likely to pick up both media studies and science students failing to make the grade for their first-choice subjects. Three-quarters of the course will be science-based and applicants will need at least one science A level.
A course in physics and medical physics at Leicester University planned for next year will demand a B and two Cs at A level and is likely to appeal to those who have missed the A and two Bs needed to study medicine at the university. Unsuccessful medical school candidates could also be attracted to Bradford, which is offering a new course this year in medical engineering. Applicants will need two Bs and a C at A level and the course is also open to those with Business and Technical Education Council or General National Vocational Qualifications.
Meanwhile, applicants to the University of Westminster interested in architecture but without a place may be interested in urban design, another new course.
While it promises links with architecture and town planning, the Royal Institute of British Architects was sceptical. "If they wanted to do architecture they might be better going off round the world and trying again later," said Anne Sinclair, assistant director education and practice standards.