Sixth-formers seeking science places at one of the country's top universities have had their applications put on ice because of a threat to the future of their courses.
King's College London - part of the University of London - has told staff to put applications on hold until a decision has been reached on the fate of several of its science courses. The crisis comes as a growing number of universities are squeezing study of the subjects. At least six have closed their chemistry departments during the past few years.
The King's College move has provoked fury from academics and student leaders, who claim it is a "serious abuse" of the admissions system. However, the university claims it has no alternative as a result of a dwindling number of applications in recent years and the crisis facing recruitment to science courses in general in higher education.
The move comes just months after King's provoked criticism by withdrawing provisional offers made to sixth-formers wanting to study chemistry this autumn because of a question mark over the future of the department.
The unprecedented action coincided with the 50th anniversary celebrations of King's College's pioneering work which led to the discovery of the structure of DNA.
A final decision on the future of courses is expected to be taken by the college's ruling body next month. In the meantime, applications to biological science, microbiology and environmental science have been frozen - while would-be chemistry students have been told not to even apply. It is understood that more than 50 students have applied for the microbiology course alone.
These latest moves underline growing concerns over the future of science in higher education. Aberystwyth, Essex and four London institutions - Royal Holloway, Brunel, East London and City - have all shut their chemistry departments in recent years.
One academic source said the decision was "causing enormous distress and anxiety to sixth-form students who have applied to King's. Students are now ringing departments to ask why they have not received a reply to their Ucas application."
The college stressed that prospective students were being advised of their options. If closures were agreed, applications would be passed on to other colleges in the London area. A spokesman added that King's still offered more than 150 science courses.Reuse content