Universities are poaching candidates from rival institutions as record A-level grades tempt students to trade up from less prestigious courses.
Some institutions are offering places on full-degree courses to students who were planning to take foundation degrees or higher national diplomas. Others are taking students in clearing who have been offered degree places elsewhere.
A spokesman for South Bank University said: "Some people with higher national diploma offers (from South Bank) have been offered degree places at other London institutions."
At North East Wales Institute of Higher Education, a spokeswoman said: "We have been able to offer students who have done better than expected a transfer from a foundation degree to a full degree."
However, the institute is now fighting to fill its foundation degree courses.
Alexandra Burslem, vice-chancellor of Manchester Metropolitan University, said: "I would not put it in terms of poaching, but university admissions operate in a marketplace. It is a case of supply and demand.
"I would expect this to be a greater factor this year than last because of the abolition of the maximum number of students a university can recruit without being penalised."
Mike Nicholson, head of undergraduate admissions at the University of Essex, said: "So far we have had about a dozen to 15 students with firm offers who have asked for a release. In all but two cases it seems there are plausible reasons for this, but in two cases it would seem that the students have been shopping around. Technically, once they have met their offer and have been formally accepted, they are obliged to come here. But we can't force them."
The rise in the proportion of candidates achieving high grades has boosted the fortunes of some universities, including Essex. Mr Nicholson said that the university was gaining some talented students from clearing, because the most popular elite universities were massively over-subscribed and were turning away highly qualified students.
He said: "We've just accepted a girl through clearing for history. She has two As and two Bs, but because she got a B in history she was rejected by the University of Warwick. There are some very good students floating around."
Stephen Magee, director of admissions at St Andrews University, said: "We have had some extraordinary results and it is increasingly difficult to manage university entry when so many kids have above the asking rate for these disciplines."
The improved exam results mean that applicants can pick and choose between institutions.
John Coyne, pro vice-chancellor at De Montfort University, said: "My impression is that it is a very mature and well-informed student market this year. Students seem to know exactly what they are looking for."
A spokesman for Portsmouth University said: "Students are showing a more measured approach: less anxious and more reflective on their options."
Several institutions said they had noticed a higher number of last-minute applicants this year. These were mostly students who had achieved better A or AS-level grades than expected. Some applicants had decided to give up the offer of a job for a chance to go to university.
A Coventry University spokeswoman said: "More students have applied at the last minute. Some of them have jobs to go to but they do not want to give up the opportunity to earn a higher salary once they graduate."
Linda Bradbury, admissions manager at Staffordshire University, said:
"Normally the calls we deal with are from students who just want to check that they have secured a place. This year it is mainly from students who got better results than expected and are now considering university."
* Chaos came to clearing this week as Cheltenham - home to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service - was cut off. A major electrical fault left the town without power, affecting phones and computer systems for several hours