Chaminda Jayanetti and Patrick Ward uncover a bid to fill places by dropping entry requirements.
Elite universities were this week reducing their advertised entry requirements to as low as three grade Ds at A level in an attempt to fill places on less popular courses.
An investigation by The Times Higher found that some institutions from the Russell Group and 94 Group were willing, during clearing this week, to accept students on courses within the key areas of science, engineering and languages with C and D grades.
The findings have raised concerns that the lowering of grades at some of the most popular universities made it harder for newer universities to fill their courses this year and that some departments could even close.
Prospective students were offered places at Glasgow University to study electronics and electrical engineering with just two Ds and one C. Glasgow's prospectus lists the minimum requirement as a B and two Cs .
Liverpool University offered entry to its French degree for two Cs and one D, down from its original requirement of two Bs and a C. Nottingham University offered a place on microbiology for one C and two Ds, down from an original two Bs and a C.
Goldsmiths, University of London, a member of the 94 Group of research-intensive universities, offered a place on its computer science degree for three Ds, down from the B and two Cs advertised in its online prospectus.
A Goldsmiths spokeswoman said that they had seen a rise in applications compared with last year, and any applicant offered a place with three Ds would be interviewed to assess suitability.
A total of 805,698 A levels were examined in 2006, up from 783,878 last year, but the number sitting physics A level dropped from 28,119 to ,368. In languages, the number of candidates showed slight increases.
This year, 17,000 fewer students applied to university, according to figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, with applications down 3.5 per cent.
Application to biology-related courses fell by 10 per cent, with interest in electronic and electrical engineering down by 17.7 per cent. Applications to French, German and Spanish also fell.
Matthew Harrison, director of education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: "I anticipate some cases where a transfer market will appear, where students who got into a new university find that they can get into a Russell Group university and take up the place there instead."
Roger Woods, chair of the University Council of Modern Languages, warned that a fall in applications could lead to cuts at new universities. His department, German at Nottingham University, was accepting some students with three C grades.
He said: "As the number of students coming through declines, Russell Group universities tend to pick up students who used to go to new universities, and new universities' departments get scaled down or shut."
One vice-chancellor said that the lower offers made by elite universities were having a "knock-on effect" for post-92 institutions, where recruitment was "trickier than ever".
Sally Hunt, University and College Union joint secretary, said: "The Government's shift towards a market in higher education is at the root of potential course closures. "If the market dictates that science or modern language courses are no longer popular or profitable, then a widespread cull is inevitable," she said.
John Cater, chief executive at Edge Hill University, said that his institution was less vulnerable to the "grade deflation" in less popular subjects, as it had relatively few programmes in modern foreign languages and in the sciences.
But he said that institutions lower down the perceived hierarchy competing offering the same courses as those at the top could find themselves in real difficulty.
HOW A LEVELS FARED THIS YEAR
805,698 A levels were examined in 2006, compared with 783,878 last year
96.6 per cent of A levels were passed (24.1 per cent grade A)
The number of students sitting A-level physics fell by 35 per cent between 1991 and 2005, and slipped further in 2006, from 28,119 to ,368
The number of students sitting A-level maths fell 22 per cent, while chemistry fell by 13 per cent between 1991 and 2005