Universities are pushing to relax student recruitment rules that are forcing them to turn away thousands of well-qualified applicants this year that they could otherwise accommodate.
Vice-chancellors are calling for an overhaul of the funding council restrictions that have prevented universities offering significantly more places in a bumper year for applications from students with better-than-ever A-level grades.
Some universities would have liked to recruit more students this year to cushion themselves against a possible drop in numbers of applications next year due to the introduction of top-up fees. They are worried that courses may have to close next year if numbers of applications fall.
Michael Sterling, Birmingham University vice-chancellor and chairman of the Russell Group, said that institutions such as his own that have the space and facilities to take in more students were frustrated to have to shut out suitably qualified applicants.
Universities are funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England for only a fixed number of students. Those that fall 5 per cent above or below the target are fined.
To stay within these limits, many Russell Group universities have raised the bar on entry requirements, and are sticking to them. In previous years, institutions have accepted applicants who achieved grades slightly lower than expected.
Students who have been disappointed as a result have been searching for a place at alternative universities. But those hoping to study the most popular subjects are finding courses full, even at institutions that are pushing their intake towards the 5 per cent limit.
Michael Driscoll, Middlesex University vice-chancellor and chairman of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said many new universities would be recruiting up to the 5 per cent ceiling because of uncertainty over whether numbers of applications would drop next year. He said that if a fall occurred, Hefce could find itself having to provide a safety net for some courses to avoid closures.
"No one wants to see students who have worked very hard not getting a place. You have to ask how have we got ourselves in a position where potentially we have made such a big error in forecasting numbers," he said.
Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said his institution was definitely "making hay while the sun shines" by taking in more students this year "in case things get a little exciting next year".
Numbers of applications at Bolton University are up 46 per cent compared with last year. Phil Lloyd, head of recruitment, said: "We are sailing into uncharted waters next year. It would have been helpful if we had been allowed to take in more while applications are so buoyant."
Professor Sterling said that with the number of applications up more than 8 per cent overall this year and more than 113,000 applicants still eligible for clearing, the need for a "radical review" of Hefce's rules was clear.
He said: "This plus or minus 5 per cent rule is annoying. It means popular universities are in effect being fined. If Hefce were properly funding high-quality courses you would see Russell Group universities increasing their numbers."
A Hefce official said that a change in the rules was unlikely.