A number of English universities may have ignored the threat of fines and deliberately overshot limits on undergraduate recruitment in anticipation of a fall in demand when tuition fees rise.
Concerns are growing that the students accepted on to courses starting this year may number several thousand more than the places available, partly because of the "perverse incentives" created by the tripling of the tuition-fee cap.
The development could have serious implications for the amount of funding the government is able to award the sector and could force it into cutting places or asking the funding council to introduce heavier penalties for over-recruitment.
Although definitive data will not be available for another two months, sources have told Times Higher Education that they believe that over-recruitment has occurred on a grander scale than last year, when 14 institutions overshot their caps by a total of 2,150 students.
The latest available figures for English institutions, published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in August, also suggest such a trend.
They show an increase of about 10,000 in the number of home and European Union students accepted on to courses compared with 2010-11, even though there are no extra full-time places for 2011-12.
Universities exceeding the limits on full-time undergraduates - which are set by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to control the government's student-support costs - are fined £3,750 per extra student.
In the past, the fine has been repeated the following year unless the offending institution under-recruits to offset the overshoot.
THE understands that because some universities expect demand to fall next year as a result of higher fees, they are deliberately taking on too many students in 2011-12 as they calculate that they will be fined only once by Hefce because they will under-recruit in 2012-13.
Even if they do not see a drop in enrolments in 2012-13, they may have taken the view that they would still benefit as fees will be nearer £9,000 - much higher than the current fine.
Any such calculation would fly in the face of warnings from the government, which said in its annual grant letter last December that any over-recruitment in 2011-12 could result in offending institutions' teaching grant being clawed back.
Watch your step
Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, said it was too early to read anything into the Ucas figures as various factors often came into play before student numbers were officially counted in December.
However, he added that the sector had to be "very careful" to avoid large-scale over-recruitment due to the pressure it would place on government finances and the risk it would lead to further regulation of student numbers.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said it was "unsettling and disturbing" that universities were taking decisions without knowing the "rules of the game".
Another explanation for the 10,000 increase could be larger numbers of applicants using Ucas because of the pressure of securing places before higher fees are instituted in 2012-13.
Over-recruitment may also reflect other factors. It is thought that far fewer students have chosen to defer their studies at the last minute than did so last year, and there have also been suggestions that the remarking of some incorrectly marked A-level papers may be having an effect.
But Matthew Andrews, chair of the admissions practitioner group at the Academic Registrars Council, said over-recruitment at any particular institution would probably be due to a "combination of all the normal things that happen during an admissions cycle".
"I can't really see what advantage it would be to an institution to purposefully over-recruit in any expectation that student numbers might go down next year," said Mr Andrews, academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University, which he said had "slightly under-recruited" this year as planned.
No private access to sub-£7,500 places
Private providers will not be able to compete for the 20,000 student places that are to be set aside for institutions charging tuition fees below £7,500 next year, it has been revealed.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England said that "under current legislation, our powers do not extend to these other bodies", despite the government stating in the White Paper that it wanted to see "non-traditional" providers involved.
Hefce also announced a number of changes to the plans for student-number controls for 2012-13. These include protection for "vulnerable" subjects such as the sciences; the opportunity for specialist performing arts colleges to opt out; and measures to make it easier for highly selective institutions to recruit students with A-level grades other than AAB or above.