A boom in the number of Scottish students has followed changes to funding north of the border while English universities struggle to meet expansion targets this year.
Just under 2,000 more Scottish students have won places at Scottish universities compared with last year. This 7.8 per cent rise follows the Scottish Executive's decision to scrap fees and introduce bursaries.
The flood of Scots has been matched by a drop of almost 15 per cent in the number of English students accepted to Scottish institutions. English students studying in Scotland must pay fees. Total acceptances at Scottish institutions rose by 2.6 per cent.
At English universities, total acceptances have climbed by just under 5,000, or 1.7 per cent. There has been a 2.2 per cent rise in English students accepted to English universities.
Vice-chancellors are worried because English institutions are expected to fill the bulk of the 52,000 extra places available this year - a 6 per cent increase - to meet the government's expansion target. Financial penalties loom for those under-recruiting.
Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, said: "The abolition of tuition fees has clearly encouraged students to enter higher education."
Scottish institutions are still finalising intake figures, but the rise in admissions was revealed to the Scottish Parliament's education, culture and sports committee, which is investigating the Scottish Qualifications Authority's exam results fiasco.
If English universities miss admissions targets, they may have to return some of their grant to the Higher Education Funding Council for England. This would increase difficulties for universities, which are still unsure of funding per student over the next three years.
Tony Bruce, policy director at the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, said: "Clearly there is a short-term uncertainty over student numbers. This could cause the sector financial difficulty, but we will have to wait and see the scale of the shortfall."
Mr Bruce said that acceptances for this year were still rising. He added that things should improve in the long term as the number of young people of university age starts to rise after 2002.
The funding council would consider individually institutions that miss recruitment targets, a Hefce spokesman said. Although not ruling out a clawback of grant, he said Hefce would do nothing that would undermine an institution's teaching commitment.
Very early indications from Oxford and Cambridge universities suggest that 2001-02 may follow the downward trend. The deadline for applications to these universities was October 15, two months before the deadline for the rest of the sector. Both of these institutions are over-subscribed and will fill places easily, but the number of applications to both has been disappointing.
At Cambridge, applications for courses starting in 2001 are 10 per cent below last year's number, the first drop in 12 years. Susan Stobbs, director of admissions, said: "It is too early to say whether this reflects a national pattern of applications to all universities."
Applications to Oxford rose marginally, but the proportion of state school pupils fell 1 per cent below last year's. This is of particular concern because the university is making huge efforts to recruit state school pupils.
Conservative education spokeswoman Theresa May said: "The government is obsessed with setting targets without thinking through the relevance of those targets and whether they can be met practically. And however sympathetic Hefce may be, the government has made clear that what extra money there is for higher education is for widening access."
In Scotland, not everyone was ready to ascribe the rise in applications to the Cubie effect. David Caldwell, director of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals, said students from better-off families had an incentive to enter higher education this year because they would pay no fees or graduate endowment contribution. But poorer students had an incentive to wait until next year and the introduction of bursaries.
Mr Caldwell said the rise might stem partly from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council's giving institutions more flexibility in recruitment after the SQA fiasco. Many institutions admitted students on the basis of predicted grades, and Shefc is allowing a 4 per cent overshoot in overall numbers rather than 3 per cent.
Paul McClure, head of applications services for Ucas, told the parliamentary committee that 13,351 of 18,816 Scottish applicants won their first choice of places. Just over 1,000 won their second choice, with 1,000 others placed through clearing. Some 3,360 youngsters were not placed.
Joan Stringer, deputy convener of Coshep and principal of Queen Margaret University College, told the committee that QMUC was likely to have recruited 5 per cent above funded numbers.
Mr Caldwell said Shefc's flexibility was not an "unmitigated benefit", as institutions would get just £1,050 for each extra student while facing costs of £5,000.