A student recruitment war generated by the Government's higher-education reforms is forcing universities to behave like football teams in search of top talent, a leading academic claimed last night.
Research by The Independent has revealed that many of the country's middle-ranking universities are trying to woo high-performing A-level candidates with a range of incentives as they try to cling on to those with the benchmark A-level grades of AAB.
The incentives include free , slashing accommodation costs by as much as £1,500 and special bursaries for those with top grades.
Union leaders last night condemned what they see as an "ugly bidding war", forced upon universities by the Coalition's decision earlier this year to allow them to increase their student numbers provided they recruit those with at least two A grades and a B-grade pass. A total of 20,000 places will be available under this scheme.
Professor Alan Smithers, head of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, said: "Universities are like football managers. In order to secure their standing, they have to recruit the best available talent now that the Government has freed up student places." As a result of the shake-up, Bristol is planning to offer 600 additional places to AAB candidates and University College London 300 places. Both are members of the Russell Group, which represents 24 of the most selective research-intensive higher education institutions in the UK.
Faced with this competition, universities outside the Russell Group are responding by offering financial incentives in a bid to keep top students.
Coventry was offering £1,000 a year "academic excellence scholarships" to AAB students or a £1,500 discount on university accommodation, Bradford is offering £1,500 in the first year and £1,000 thereafter. Northampton is offering £2,000 per year to those who put it down as their first choice. Students accepting the offer will be expected to be ambassadors for future students and to secure a 2:1 degree pass.
Professor Smithers added: "The middle-ranking universities can see some of their potential clients being lured away. It is actually positive from the students' point of view. They will be receiving a reward for excellence in their A-levels. I wouldn't be tempted, though, to put my life in the balance for a couple of thousand pounds."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "By creating an artificial market in A-level scores the Government is forcing a number of universities into an ugly bidding war and is creating instability... Moreover, it is causing the focus to be shifted on to a relatively small group of highly qualified students in preference to those most in need of support."
Today's A-level results are expected to show grades and pass rates at roughly the same level as last year, when 27 per cent of all scripts were awarded an A* or A grade pass following guidance from Ofqual, the exams regulator, in an attempt to stem grade inflation after 28 successive years of rises.
The results will trigger another scramble for university places as, despite a drop of around nine per cent in the number of UK applicants this year, candidates will still outnumber places by about 100,000.
With fees rising to £9,000 from this September, some firms are reporting growing evidence that school-leavers are seeking work rather than a university degree.
Headteachers last night renewed their call for a radical overhaul of the way university places are allocated, demanding a move towards students applying for their places after they had received their A-level results.