The scramble to gain Britain's last free university places could see tens of thousands more would-be students, who had hoped to secure a place after receiving exam results next month, being squeezed out. More than 50,000 may be forced to wait a year and apply again, forfeiting their chance of free study.
Meanwhile, organisations sending students abroad for voluntary work in developing countries fear the decline of the gap year overseas, as school- leavers either head straight for college, or opt to spend free time earning instead.
The rush for places this year will place even more pressure than usual on teenagers applying through the already stressful clearing system, which matches applicants with unfilled university places each summer. Tony Higgins, chief executive of UCAS, the University and Colleges Admissions Service, which handles applications and clearing, said: "There is going to be an insane scramble like there has never been before."
UCAS admits it has been caught off guard by the planned timetable for imposing fees.
The Government announced last Wednesday its plans to abolish maintenance grants and introduce means-tested loans for tuition for students entering higher education from 1998.
The change, based on recommendations made by Sir Ron Dearing's committee of inquiry into higher education, which reported on the same day, will leave most graduates with debts of more than pounds 10,000.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment confirmed: "If a student defers entry, they will be caught by the new arrangements."
Jess Endeby of UCAS said the service had not anticipated fee reforms until 1999 at the earliest. It now expects to see significant numbers of the 26,000 school-leavers who had applied for deferred places to ditch plans for a year off and seek entry this year instead. One consequence, he says, will be "a knock-on effect on clearing and on less well-qualified students. It will make it a tougher job for people to get a place than it might have been".
UCAS estimates that there will be about 295,000 higher education places available through clearing this summer, and calculates that the loans and fees reforms will push up numbers of applicants to an unprecedented 350,000. That would leave some 55,000 would-be undergraduates without a place, many of them easily able enough to have qualified for university in previous years, Tony Higgins said.
There is also concern among organisations running overseas voluntary schemes for gap year students. John Fraser of Project Trust, one of the longest established of the gap year schemes, said the funding changes would prove "detrimental to what we are doing". The 30-year-old organisation sends some 200 18-year-old volunteers annually to work in South African clinics, Ugandan schools and Vietnamese care projects, among other schemes. Participants spend a year overseas and must train and raise pounds 2,950 to cover costs before they go.
"The emphasis of our scheme is on personal development," Mr Fraser said. "Our volunteers come back after a year abroad and without doubt they are better students as a result of it.
"They are usually already among the academic cream, but they go on to university with a greater maturity and sense of purpose. Losing out on that can only be detrimental to the university system."