Eager admissions tutors are putting the applications system under threat by poaching students during clearing.
Universities and Colleges Admissions Service chief executive Tony Higgins claims that "many thousands" of students are being admitted to institutions directly. The result is that institutions which had offered them places risk missing their targets and therefore forfeiting funding.
While some students and some universities benefit from poaching other institutions are losing out. Further education colleges are particularly vulnerable since most are not UCAS members protected by the UCAS system under which students cannot hold two places.
At one London further education college 60 students were offered places after applying unsuccessfully to universities through UCAS last year. Only one ended up studying there. The college believes the rest were poached by universities who suddenly found themselves short of students.
Following a series of complaints Mr Higgins wrote in June to vice chancellors and principals demanding that admissions officers keep to the rule that all applicants to its 250 member institutions must use a UCAS form. So far, UCAS has not imposed sanctions but has relied on peer pressure and a chat.
In his letter Mr Higgins states he has received complaints from a number of quarters that "too many students are being encouraged to apply direct . . . so that many thousands are being admitted to universities and colleges but are not going through the UCAS system".
According to UCAS the increase in access and foundation courses, "year zero" courses where students do a preparatory year, and agreements between schools or colleges and higher education institutions to encourage access, have caused confusion.
Some admissions tutors, desperate to make up numbers, are contacting applicants directly. Some are asked to apply on forms drawn up by the institution. Others do not use application forms at all.
Mr Higgins added this week: "There are occasions when perhaps over-enthusiastic admissions tutors who haven't quite made their targets might go back to people they have rejected earlier and ask if they want to go to them after all."
Mr Higgins said UCAS had been asked to lay down rules to stop people bypassing the system. He says in his letter: "We are trying to ensure that applicants cannot abuse the system and therefore leave institutions in an uncertain position when they need to be able to recruit accurately to their targets."
UCAS also wanted "to ensure that applicants know from the outset what the rules of the game are, confident they will be fairly and consistently applied."
Admissions officers at further education colleges claim universities reject candidates in the original applications round because they have to pitch offers high to maintain official entry standards.
Later, during the clearing scramble and after many of the candidates have accepted places at FE colleges, they drop entry standards and poach the applicants back. Many of these will be students accepted by FE colleges to do HNDs, who are then lured by the offer of a degree course.
Julian Gravatt, senior registrar at Lewisham College, said: "FE applicants are poached by universities because they have a more prestigious reputation and more prestigious courses." For example, one applicant to study for an HND in computing last year was poached by a neighbouring university with an offer of an engineering course.