Regrading and raised achievement at A level will make competition for university places fiercer than ever next year.
Up to 50,000 students took A2 and AS-level papers in subjects that are due to be regraded as part of the inquiry led by former schools inspector Mike Tomlinson. Universities have promised to honour places if, after regrading, students meet their entry requirements. Thousands of students could be affected.
Revised results will be issued to students by October 15. This will be too late for most students to transfer from second-choice to first-choice institutions or, in some cases, to enter higher education. Instead, students will be guaranteed places for courses starting in autumn 2003, creating more competition for the remaining places.
Universities UK president Roderick Floud said: "We will meet to discuss the situation with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in terms of what the expected results for 2003 will be. A logjam entirely depends on how big the numbers of students affected are. We still do not know what the numbers are."
Many universities have been raising their entry standards in the past few years to reflect raised achievement at A level and changes in student demand. New benchmarks following the current regrading would bring pressure for even higher offers.
Jacqueline Henshaw, head of admissions at the University of Manchester, said: "Over recent years our entry requirements have gone up, but most of our departments state a range to give us flexibility so candidates are not judged on just their exam results."
A spokesman for the University of Bristol said: "This university is full and term has already started. We will do our best to accommodate students with revised grades, but many will have to defer until next year when competition for places will be particularly acute."
A spokesman for Cardiff University said: "Cardiff is a university of first choice for well-qualified applicants. Competition for places is keen, and entry requirements reflect this.
"This year's average is expected to be higher, and individual departments will decide the appropriate entry requirements for next year, though it is anticipated that most will rise to reflect demand for places."
Others will offer fewer places as more students achieve the necessary grades. Brian Salter, academic registrar at King's College London, said: "I doubt that we would increase the A-level grade requirement, rather we would reduce the number of conditional offers we make."
Even if some students decide to stay put this year rather than move to their first-choice university, there could be problems ahead for universities. Vice-chancellors foresee students completing their first year at their present institution and applying for a transfer to the second year at their first-choice institution next summer. This would raise issues of credit accumulation and transfer.
Other students might decide to quit their present universities, creating financial problems for those institutions, and take time out before reapplying to their first-choice institution next year.
Meanwhile, the Department for Education and Skills has clarified what education secretary Estelle Morris meant when she promised that no university would be left out of pocket as a result of costs incurred due to the A-level regrading.
A spokesman said that should any institution fall below 5 per cent of its intended student numbers due to withdrawals as a result of the debacle, it would not be subject to the normal penalty. However, the DFES expected institutions to return tuition fees to students who withdrew.