Universities are gearing up for one of the busiest clearing windows ever, with many institutions keen to make a play for coveted "AAB" students.
With applicant numbers at some universities down by 20 to 30 per cent, clearing - which starts after A-level results are released on 16 August - is likely to become increasingly important for higher education institutions struggling to fill their courses.
About 52,000 fewer people applied to university this year via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, although numbers still outstrip places. Fewer applications will mean that students in clearing have a greater choice, said Matthew Andrews, academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University.
"There is a general anticipation that there will be more places available this year because of the dip in applications and a fall in people holding confirmed offers," said Mr Andrews, who is also chairman of the admissions group of the Academic Registrars Council.
Much of this year's activity is likely to centre on students achieving grades of at least AAB in A levels or the equivalent - a cohort exempt from strict undergraduate number quotas at English universities.
Attracting extra AAB students is the only way to expand domestic student numbers this year, and several universities normally outside clearing are likely to enter for that reason.
Nic Pike, head of admissions at the University of Surrey, said he was keen to find "high-calibre" students. "We are not looking for huge numbers, but we are looking for a particular calibre of student - those with AAB or ABB at A level," he said.
"They might be those looking to trade up if they have done better than expected or perhaps someone predicted a couple of A*s who didn't quite meet their offer elsewhere.
"It's not about poaching - we can't actively go out and look for students. It's likely to be someone who has visited the campus and had Surrey in mind if they did better than expected."
Students who narrowly fail to achieve AAB at A level may find themselves in a difficult situation.
Suddenly subject to controls on a university's student numbers, they might not receive a lower-grade offer from the institution, as in previous years, and might be forced to look elsewhere.
"Your decision to take that student is complex because you have to think how close you will go near your student number cap," said Mr Andrews. "Going over ... incurs some severe penalties, but there are also fewer applicants around, so you might still want those students."
Lost in space
A survey of admissions staff by the independent Supporting Professionalism in Admissions group, released in July, found that most of them believed that applicants missing marks of AAB or above would be "badly affected" at confirmation and clearing. Admissions staff were also worried that students might face an anxious wait to see if a space is available for them, the report adds.
Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, believes that universities face a tricky balancing act this year. "It was previously a case of filling your places at the highest grades you could," Sir Steve said.
"But student control numbers mean you now have to run clearing like a Rubik's Cube.
"You have to fill your courses, fill your different campuses and meet your widening participation targets, but all within two (regimes) - AAB and total student numbers.
"Last year you could have replaced those who didn't get AAB with those who got ABB or lower; now you cannot do that."
Janet Graham, director of SPA, added: "It is different to other years but it has always been the case that if you don't make the grades, you might not get in," she said. "If people are prepared to be flexible, there is always somewhere for them."
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, said she had a "high level of confidence" that admissions offices would "do their usual professional job and minimise the waiting times".
"Applicants with good grades will always be able to find vacancies in the system but may have to wait another year if they have their heart set on a course that is already full."
Turn on, tune in, sit down: How universities plan to entice students
Universities are pulling out all the stops to recruit students in this month's clearing window, with cinema advertisements, internet chat rooms and mobile phone apps all being used to attract applicants.
Several institutions have targeted social networking sites in the run-up to A-level results day on 16 August, advertising on Facebook, Google, Twitter and the online chat room The Student Room, which has had a per cent surge in campaigns from universities this year.
In addition to its online efforts, the University of Salford is taking a red sofa on a tour around Manchester to ask students about their experiences and to present information about courses, work placements and opportunities to study abroad.
"The sofa acts as a metaphor for the University of Salford; it's friendly, bright, comfortable and welcoming - much like the university itself," said Andrea Lingley, the university's senior recruitment officer.
Staff from the University of Bedfordshire will be heading into town centres to pass on information to students, while 50 call handlers will be back on campus answering the phones.
Meanwhile, London South Bank University has teamed up with The Student Room to launch its clearing campaign, dubbed "The C Word".
A bespoke internet chat room area on the site includes three short films about clearing, including student vox pops addressing commonly asked questions.
Other institutions to use a similar formula include the University of Wolverhampton, which has created its own online chat room to communicate with students on 16 and 17 August.
Meanwhile, students and graduates at Liverpool John Moores University have created a cinema advert about undergraduate life, starring students, which has been showing in local multiplexes.
The film is also available to view on YouTube and the university's website, alongside out-takes and interviews with students.
A virtual tour of the university, including an interactive game, is also available on the institution's website.
One of the places using smartphone technology is Kingston University, which hopes that its new iPhone application for staff and students will provide up-to-date information on places available in clearing.
Others have gone for more traditional media, with Harper Adams University College, a specialist agricultural institution in Shropshire, screening a television advert in Wales ahead of results day.
Source: Jack Grove