Funding chiefs have bumped up the maximum number of students each university or college can recruit next year, after a shortfall of 7,000 last year.
Until last week, universities and colleges that attracted 2 per cent more full-time undergraduate students than had been agreed with funding chiefs were penalised. That margin has now been doubled.
Guidance from the Higher Education Funding Council for England last week says: "We have reviewed last year's recruitment against the maximum student number (MaSN) and concluded that the 2 per cent margin may have been unduly restrictive and discouraged some institutions from achieving their MaSN target. In increasing the MaSN for 2000-01, we hope to offer greater flexibility so that they can recruit fully up to their MaSN."
Last year's 7,000 unfilled places have already been re-allocated to institutions that could demonstrate strengths in high-quality provision, widening access and demand for their courses. The relaxation of the rules relates to the recruitment of students starting in the autumn.
Mario Ferelli, who works in the analytical services group at Hefce, said:
"The atmosphere is such that we now feel able to increase the margin. It's a combination of the spending review settlement and planned expansion."
The introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance grants for full-time undergraduates has also had an effect. The government had been keen to keep a tight lid on expansion when it had to find tuition fees and grants for all students.
It is up to each individual institution to decide whether it wants to boost enrolment. The funding council will neither provide more cash nor penalise institutions for recruiting up to 4 per cent more students than the target. However, institutions will get extra cash from the tuition fee income for any students it recruits over the target number.