Some universities are encouraging young people to apply direct to them, bypassing the admissions regulations, while others are looking at the A- level grades and phoning up students who have done better than expected.
Further education colleges which run higher education courses have been particularly hard hit, with some saying that in past years they have lost hundreds of students to poachers from universities. They only know that this has been happening when their new recruits fail to turn up in September.
Some sources say that many new universities would not be concerned even if the official entrance system collapsed, as they get a majority of their students by unofficial means. The official way for students to get into university is to apply through the admissions service before Christmas the previous year. They can then accept one offer and keep another for lower grades as a kind of insurance. If they meet the necessary requirements of either one, they must take it up. The clearing system exists to match up spare places with students who have nowhere to go.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), has written to vice-chancellors in an attempt to persuade them not to take part in any underhand dealings. Too many students are being asked by universities to bypass the official system, he says, and some have even drawn up their own application forms for unofficial entrants.
Mr Higgins has also written to several universities individually to warn them that there have been complaints about their recruitment methods.
He said the system was set up to prevent chaos and to help both students and universities. A proposed system under which everyone would apply after the A-level results came out would prevent such problems occurring, he added.
"The whole system is geared to the candidates' needs so that everybody is applying under the same rules. Universities don't want to find in October that they are thousands light of their targets," he said.
Julian Gravatt, senior registrar at Lewisham College, south London, said it had lost students in the past, often to much larger institutions. "Both the university and the student would say that it was better for them, but it isn't always true. There is a possible problem with drop-out along the line because those places don't offer the supportive environment to students that we can," he said.
Ted Neild, spokesman for the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals, condemned the practice. Before the central admissions service was set up in 1961, universities never knew how many of their students would turn up because they might easily have accepted two or more offers, he said.
"Actions like these, if they are occurring, pose a threat to the integrity of the central admissions service which has done everybody so much good."
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