Free tablet computers and £900 cash on offer in scramble to woo students

With more places to fill, universities are using all the tricks to persuade would-be undergraduates to join courses

Students with A-level grades as low as three Es are being offered free tablet computers to sign up for courses, as competition to fill places hots up between universities.

The University of East London is offering would-be students a package worth £1,200, including a tablet computer and £900 to spend on books and travel. It is one of several universities offering inducements to this year's A-level candidates since the number of places on offer this autumn has risen to more than a million.

Ministers gave the green light for an extra 30,000 students to be enrolled this year, and have told universities they can recruit as many students as they can with at least an A and two other passes.

The relaxing of restrictions has led to the country's most selective institutions, such as the 24 members of the Russell Group of universities, trying to recruit teenagers who might have already been offered a place at another institution with lower entry qualifications but have done better than expected in their A-level results.

In addition, some students who have just missed out on the grades needed for a provisional offer, and who in the past would have had to look elsewhere for a place, are being told the offer is still open.

As a result, academics believe many of the less selective universities will find it harder to fill places this year.

At East London, students with three E-grade passes are being recruited on to foundation degree courses, which can led to a full degree at the end of the course. Those going straight on to a full degree course need three Cs.

The University of West London is offering students with at least two B grades and a C a fee-waiver worth £8,500 for their first year. The University of Greenwich is offering a £2,500-a-year bursary for three years for candidates achieving at least ABB grades.

The Government's relaxation of the cap on student numbers and the decision to remove all restrictions from taking on students with an A and two B grades has led to many university offering more places.

An survey of 55 universities found 400 extra places on offer at the University of Bath, 300 at Derby, 250 at Coventry, 100 at the University of Gloucestershire, and 150 at Chester.

Universities reported a record level of interest through the clearing system, which allocates untaken places to students. On Friday, 18 of the Russell Group universities still had courses listed in clearing, including science, maths and languages. In all 3,300 courses were listed as having vacancies at these universities, mainly for those with higher grades.

Bath Spa University reported that it had filled all its places in clearing after three and a half hours, while the neighbouring University of Bath was no longer advertising clearing places for home students except on a couple of language courses, where there were 12 to 15 spaces left.

De Montford University, Leicester, reported record demand for places, saying "at one point we were taking one call every five seconds". Places were still available at Liverpool for students with at least three B grades.

Admissions service Ucas warned students not to delay in securing a place, saying that two-thirds of places allocated through clearing would have been filled by tomorrow.

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: "Some may have more places to offer through clearing to well-qualified students who have narrowly missed out on their first choice."

Nick Foskett, the vice-chancellor of Keele University, said: "An increase in spaces at universities for 2014/15 means more students have been accepted into their first choice, even if they have missed their target by the odd grade."

A spokesman for City University, London, said: "We have experienced a great deal of interest across our course portfolio, with calls 13 per cent up on this stage in the previous year. We have had a particularly high number of inquiries about our economics courses and across our Stem subjects [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]."

The University of Greenwich reported its busiest day of clearing, with more than 7000 calls received on results day, an increase of 16 per cent on last year, despite having fewer places available through clearing this year after filling more places in the main cycle of applications.

A-level results for England, Wales and Northern Ireland showed that 98 per cent of exams yielded at least an E this summer, down by 0.1 percentage points – the first time it has fallen in 32 years. Just over one in four (26 per cent) of exams were awarded an A* or A grade, down 0.3 percentage points on last summer. However, the proportion of A* grades rose to 8.2 per cent, up slightly on 2013.

Exam board bosses said the decline in pass rates could be explained by more students taking "facilitating subjects" – traditional subjects often favoured by top universities – even if they were less likely to do well.

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