The Government's decision to offer 10,000 extra university places this autumn looked in danger of backfiring this week as universities raised concerns about the scheme.
Institutions that struggle to recruit undergraduates to their science and maths courses fear students could be "poached" by more popular rivals under new rules for clearing introduced this summer.
From August, a new “adjustment period” will give students who achieve higher grades in their A-levels than required by their first choice university time to explore other options, giving those who have done better than expected the chance to ‘trade up’ to a more selective institution.
Initially, admissions experts predicted that the change would have limited impact, as there would be only a small number of places to "trade up" to.
However, the Government's announcement on 20 July of 10,000 new places in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses could allow more students than originally anticipated to take advantage of the opportunity.
Laura Kishore, chair of the admissions group of the Academic Registrars Council, said of the new admissions rules: "At our last meeting, I tried to emphasise how important it was to 'play by the rules'. It is clear that an unscrupulous institution could be accused of poaching under this scheme."
Meanwhile, many research-intensive institutions have confirmed they will turn down the extra places because they are only part-funded.
The Government has agreed to cover the cost of student support for the places, but universities will not receive any teaching grant.
The University of Cambridge said it had "no plans to take any significant number of places", while the universities of Exeter, King's College London, Liverpool, Oxford and Southampton are among the others to have declined the offer. Those accepting more places include the universities of Chichester, Coventry, East London and Kingston.
Admissions officers also worry that the lateness of the decision means that all 10,000 places will have to be allocated during clearing, which some say could lead to higher numbers dropping out.
Last week, David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England detailing the subjects in which the extra places will be offered. They are: biological and related health sciences (excluding psychology, sports science and those that are practice-based), physical sciences (excluding geography), mathematical and computer sciences, engineering, technology, economics and business studies.
Places will be allocated based on the number of STEM students each institution admitted in 2007-08.
Update: 31 July 2009
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has published official figures showing how many additional student numbers each university plans to accept. The full table can be viewed at: www.hefce.ac.uk/pubs/circlets/2009/cl17_09/cl17_09a.xls