'Admissions market' puts the squeeze on new intake at second-tier universities

Government reforms could take their toll on non-elite institutions

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Many middle-ranking universities have suffered a drop in new student numbers as a result of controversial "market-based" government reforms to admissions, an Independent survey reveals today.

A cut in student numbers at the likes of Oxford Brookes and Brunel comes as several of the UK's elite universities exploit reforms allowing them to expand to take more of the best pupils – defined as those who score a miniumum of AAB at A-level.

Hull University said its intake would be 500 fewer this year – and acknowledged that interest in snapping up places through the clearing system had not been as high as 2011.

"We didn't receive contact from many students with AAB or above through clearing," a spokesman for the university said. "We sense that students are taking longer than last year to make their decision – which we feel is a good thing and we always encourage them to do that."

Brunel University is expecting a shortfall of around 200 applicants this year. This is despite the fact that it cut its maximum intake by 175 places from last year.

Other universities to confirm cuts in intake were the University of Chichester and Oxford Brookes. Chichester, which is one of the smaller universities in Britain, has reduced its intake by about 30. On AAB students, it said: "They do not form a significant part of our strategy this year and our intake is broadly the same."

Academics believe higher education could be witnessing the beginnings of a long-term trend in declining numbers for non-elite universities, as the country's best instutions expand.

Bristol, one of the Russell Group – which includes the UK's 24 leading research universities – increased its intake by 600 this year in taking advantage of the opportunity to recruit more AAB students.

Next year the squeeze is expected to be even tighter on middle-ranking universities with Universities minister David Willetts increasing the marketplace competition for university places by allowing any institution to expand if they take in candidates with an A and two B grades.

In the long run, some observers believe institutions may have to merge to remain viable. Cuts by universities in their intake also became inevitable this year as a result of the Government withdrawing more than 15,000 places that had been given the green light in past years to cope with a student influx as a result of the recession and lack of jobs for young people.

The latest figures from UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) show there are still 157, 480 students eligible to seek a place through the clearing system. In all, 35,501 clearing places have been snapped up already this year – making it likely there are less than 20,000 still available. Overall, 425,858 candidates have secured a place – 30,723 fewer than at this time last year. There are 51, 718 fewer applicants, though.

The figures show more students have withdrawn from the race – 10,729 compared to 9, 152 – possibly because students are less prepared to accept a "second choice" university this year because of the rise in fees.

Meanwhile, London Metropolitan University could become the first in the country to be barred from taking overseas students – forcing up to 11,000 students offered places to consider alternatives.

The university has had its licence suspended and the UK Border Agency is said to be recommending revoking the licence altogether because it believes there has been a series of failures in monitoring applications. The Home Office said a final decision had yet to be taken.