The extent to which universities are "discounting" courses is revealed by an exhaustive survey of vacancies by The Independent on Sunday.
Internationally respected redbrick universities have virtually halved their entrance requirements on hard-to-fill courses. Students with only two E grades will sometimes be accepted.
Academics say entrance grades are a key indicator of the quality of a course. But while universities publish details of their pre-A-level offers, the A-level scores they will eventually accept are kept secret.
University admissions officials yesterday dismissed any suggestion that lowering entrance grades would result in lower standards. Changes in entrance requirements were due to fluctuations in supply and demand and A-level scores were poor indicators of degree performance, they said.
More than 95,000 students are already eligible to seek a place through clearing, the system which matches students who have missed their grades to unfilled places. A further 92,000 could enter the system once decisions on their first choice applications are made.
But while anxious sixth-formers pore over lists of vacancies, academics scramble to reach recruitment targets, on which funding depends.
The Independent on Sunday compared entrance requirements posted on the internet for unfilled courses being offered through clearing with lists of expected requirements published by university admissions officials before A-level results were known.
Most of the biggest "discounts" are in hard-to-fill science and engineering courses. But bargains were also available in the arts and humanities.
At Liverpool University, mathematics courses were being advertised as requiring 12 A-level points - the equivalent of two Cs - almost half the expected 22 points, or grades BBC, required before the A-level results were published.
At Leeds, the grades required for a course in classical civilisation were cut from BBC to 18 points or CCC, while at Newcastle, offers for computing were cut from 20 points to 16.
Applicants to Lancaster could study chemistry, including a year in Canada or the US, for 10 points (DDE) down from CCC, while at Loughborough, French and politics dropped from 20 points (BCC) to 16 (CCD)
Bristol, like Oxford and Cambridge, did not enter the clearing system. But some applicants who have just missed their requirements will still get in.
At Exeter, the required score for maths courses was cut from 22 points, or BBC, to 16 points, or CCD. Offers for chemistry and engineering were also cut.
Nick Wright, Exeter's schools liaison officer, said: "Particularly with science and engineering you will get a better place in clearing with your grades than you would in the normal process." But quality was not compromised, he said. "Even if you are offering 14 points at A-level, it is still the most difficult exam in the world."
Tony Higgins, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service's chief executive, said: "When you get to filling the courses at the margin, it's easier to lower offers than raise them." He also said that lowering entrance grades did not mean lowering standards. "All the research tells us that performance at A-level is a poor predictor of performance at degree level."
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University, said lowering grade requirements gave candidates extra opportunities. "It's the equivalent of buying a very good suit in the sale."Reuse content