Students entering clearing next week will find themselves holding all the cards as universities fight to fill places.
Even those who do worse than expected when their results arrive on Thursday may find that they can secure places at the country's top universities, because institutions have extra places to fill to meet the government's student expansion targets.
Most leading institutions will be offering places through clearing this year. The University of Bristol is expected to recruit through clearing for the first time.
Only three institutions contacted by The THES - Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics - said they would not recruit students through clearing this year.
The places bonanza means that more prestigious universities could mop up the students with better-than-expected results. They are likely to fill their courses, in many cases at the expense of less prestigious institutions.
Last year, some 9,500 extra places went unfilled. More than 6,500 of them were at post-1992 universities. The former polytechnics expanded rapidly during the early 1990s but have since lost out to the pre-1992 universities.
A spokeswoman for Bristol said: "If we go into clearing, it will be for those students who have done better than expected. The main reason would be so that we can obtain the best possible students from the widest possible group."
Poaching students who have a place at another institution is against the rules of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. But institutions are free to take students who are outside the Ucas system and students can leave it at any time.
A Ucas spokeswoman said: "Students who achieve better grades than expected still have a contractual obligation to the university at which they accepted a place. The only alternative would be to withdraw from the system and apply again next year.
"In extreme circumstances, students may approach the institution directly and it is then up to the institution as to whether to take them. But we are quite tough on not allowing students with places to enter clearing."
Owain James, president of the National Union of Students, criticised the Ucas restrictions and called on universities and schools to reconsider a post-qualification admissions system.
He said: "The system unfairly penalises students who do better than expected... Thousands of students are affected each year because they have made a mistake or the people who advised them have made a mistake. Where somebody studies can affect their future life and employment prospects."
Tom Wilson, head of universities at lecturers' union Natfhe, said that staff in institutions were adversely affected by students accepting a place and then switching institution once they had their results.
He said: "Last year, the consequences were absolute mayhem as some institutions didn't get the students they had bargained for. There has been restructuring and job losses."
Imperial College, London, is already advertising that "we may have places for highly able students on some of our courses" on its website. The University of Birmingham states: "We expect to have vacancies in a few programmes." The University of Edinburgh boasts: "We will have places for well-qualified students across a wide range of degree programmes."
A spokeswoman for the University of Newcastle said: "We will be offering more places through clearing than last year. The university has been awarded additional student places and, as a result, has a number of vacancies across many subject areas.
"In addition to the extra student places, the university has a number of new courses that have been approved during this academic year and are available for 2001 entry. These courses have had limited publicity and have places available through clearing.
"As well as the places in the sciences, engineering and agriculture, there will be excellent opportunities in the arts, humanities and social sciences that don't normally arise."
Other research-led institutions entering clearing include the universities of Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Warwick and University College London.
Additional research by Jared Wilson.