Scramble for university places begins as doors close on those without top grades

Students lacking AAB grades at A-level are being left in the cold as high-flyers muscle in

Universities were beginning to put up the "house full" signs to students without AAB passes or better at A-level yesterday – leaving thousands with lower grades struggling to clinch a place.

A survey by The Independent showed that many universities were only taking top-grade students through the clearing system, because the Government will only allow them to expand if they take such students.

That means, though, that the number of places for those with lower grades has been slashed by 20,000 to make way for the extra AAB students.

Southampton University was one of those stipulating a minimum of AAB on the clearing page of its website. It said it had "no fixed limit" on the numbers it was willing to accept.

The university said it was being approached by "large number of students" with lower grades whom it would normally take but who are being turned away because of the Government cap on numbers.

Exeter was also setting aside extra places through clearing for high-flying students. Nottingham said it had set aside an unspecified number of places for AAB students. And Sheffield said it was recruiting more students with AABs through clearing because of the government changes; a limited number of places – for example on its straight law course – were still available for those with ABBs, it said.

Oxford Brookes University was the first in this A-level round to say it was cutting student numbers this year, though it still had 300 places on offer through the clearing system. Sussex, said the government cap meant there were more opportunities for overseas students than for those from the UK.

Academic experts have predicted that the "squeezed middle" universities may cut student numbers this year as fewer places are available for those with lower-grade passes.

At least 10 universities said they were not taking part in clearing this year because all their places had gone. These included Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics, St Andrews, University College London, King's College London, Bristol (even though it had offered 600 extra places this year), Durham and Imperial College, London.

Ucas, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, has revealed that 170,000 students are chasing around 50,000 places in the clearing system.

The survey also showed that the number of students accepting university places had risen to 379,635 yesterday, well below last year's 407,722; 9,000 of these places were snapped up on the first day of clearing. A total of 70,591 were checking whether places were still available to them.

Meanwhile, the University of Ulster revealed it had emailed offers for 400 places to the wrong students. The offers were later withdrawn.

Hot tip: A chance to study in Australia

Frustrated students still seeking a university place have been offered a ray of sunshine: the chance to study in South Australia. Three Adelaide universities are trying to lure British students by advertising in the UK, using the slogan "don't get down, get down under".

They are promising sun-soaked campuses, barbeques every evening, surfing – and even offer a degree in wine-tasting. Adelaide is one of only three centres in the world where the study of oenology is on offer; the others are France and New Zealand.

The cost of a course can be only a little more than at UK universities – £10,000 a year as opposed to £9,000. Its three public universities - the University of Adelaide, pictured, the University of South Australia and Flinders University – have growing international reputations. The number of British students studying in the city has doubled from 167 to 338 in the past decade.

"We're offering UK students the chance to rethink their options," said a spokesman. "Adelaide offers more than just a world-recognised quality degree. With 300 days of sunshine, 400 festivals and 3,000 miles of spectacular coast line, studying in Adelaide is the opportunity of a lifetime."

Case study: 'I was worried I'd miss out'

Polly Usborne, 18, logged in to the Ucas system on Thursday to find that an offer conditional on her getting three Bs had been withdrawn by Birmingham after she got an A, B and D. That was what her second choice, Oxford Brookes, had asked for.

"They told me it would be a couple of days before they knew, which was so irritating because I was then left with the prospect of no university place at all," she said. "I then rang through clearing. I must have contacted about 10 universities. A lot of them said no. As I rang, places were going."

After hours on the phone, she decided to give Oxford Brookes until yesterday morning. At 11pm on Thursday, her Ucas tracker system said the Oxford Brookes offer had changed to unconditional. She will study anthropology there from next term.