As clearing continued, English institutions were still showing a dramatic 7.6 per cent drop in the number of places filled (ie, acceptances) compared with the same point last year, according to figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service on 28 August.
The figures are perhaps surprising because student demand for places should still exceed supply despite the fall in applications this year.
One complicating factor is the government's AAB system, which has allowed universities to recruit unlimited numbers of students with those grades or better in A-level or equivalent examinations. This is likely to benefit more selective institutions, if they have an appetite for expansion, leaving universities with lesser reputations facing contraction if the AAB students they would normally attract are lured elsewhere.
A survey of institutions by Times Higher Education found that some universities were still significantly short of their recruitment targets on 28 August, meaning they could potentially lose millions of pounds in income. Kingston University said it had made 1,300 places available in clearing and had 750 acceptances as of 28 August - a shortfall of 550. The university said it expected to finish "about 500 students down on a target of approximately 5,000" for its total home-EU intake. Brunel University said it had about 240 places left on a student number control limit of 2,252. The University for the Creative Arts said it had filled 1,710 places in total and had 189 remaining.
There are also reports of universities dropping entry requirements significantly in order to fill places.
Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey and vice-president of Universities UK, said that the volatility in the system this year meant that several universities "hung on to" applicants who fell short of the grades needed to meet conditional or insurance offers, postponing a decision about whether or not to accept them.
Universities may have done so in case the AAB students to whom they had offered places were raided by other institutions.
"That means that there are good students...who are frankly trapped in the system because they haven't been released," Sir Christopher said.
Although applicants who have not received confirmation decisions can be released at any time by their own request, universities are obliged to inform applicants of their decision by 12 September at the latest.
In the meantime, hanging on to applicants means that institutions that would be happy to take these students may be seeing an apparent drying-up of student demand.
This could also cause problems for students as they may find more desirable universities unwilling to accept them later in clearing.
Some in the sector have also suggested that the drop-off in acceptances could be caused by a lack of student demand for the places reallocated to further education colleges under the margin system. But further education colleges said they allocate their places at a later stage, meaning there could be potential for acceptances in the sector as a whole to rise.
A spokesman for MidKent College, which gained 214 places under the margin system, making it one of the top five beneficiaries in England, said enrolment would not begin until this week.
"The majority of our HE students are referred to us by the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University, as they accredit most of our courses," he said. Hartpury College said it had already filled 342 of its 352 margin places.