Early estimates from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service indicate that there has been a 6.4 per cent increase in admissions for this academic year compared to 1994/95.
This means that institutions run the risk of being penalised by the funding councils for over-expansion, under a Government cap on expansion in higher education which is expected to last until 1997/98. Institutions are only allowed to recruit 1.5 per cent above the "Masn" (maximum aggregate student numbers) set by the funding councils.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, warned that the figures - which indicate a total of 288,350 admissions - are very early estimates. They appear to contradict anecdotal information from universities, many of which indicate that they have struggled to reach target numbers - especially in the sciences and engineering.
Michael Goldstein, vice chancellor of Coventry University, said: "We have now reached our target number, but we were below target in science and engineering, which has been compensated for by recruitment in other subjects."
Earlier this month heads of school at South Bank University were told not to enter into major commitments until new budgets had been drawn up to meet an income shortfall from under-recruitment.
Hull University's October Bulletin reported that the university was 100 down on HEFCE-funded numbers - a figure which the university says has now been made up.
One explanation is that last year the disruption caused by UCAS introducing a new system meant that a number of students applied directly to universities and therefore did not show up on the UCAS books. This does not appear to be happening this year.
Dr Goldstein believes the 6.4 per cent overshoot may not push up overall student numbers because: * drop-out rates from other years could be increasing.
* a significant proportion of students are no longer able to do a year out as part of a sandwich course, meaning that their courses last three years and not four.
* a number of students are taking shorter courses.
* students are flocking to subject such as the arts and humanities and studying for three years, and not longer courses like engineering.
Next week UCAS will begin a study to find out how many of this year's intake are 18 to 21-year-olds and how many are older. UCAS will also look at how many students decided not to take up a place - last year 39,000 students qualified and applied for a place, but did not end up at university.