Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), said students unsure about whether or not to take a year off or repeat exams, should think twice. Places would be available for most people if they were prepared to be flexible.
He warned that the pounds 300 levy on all new students, threatened by vice- chancellors in response to budget cuts, could prompt legal action for breach of contract from students. Although top-up fees look unlikely to happen in most universities, a number of elite institutions may start charging fees next year.
Among those which have already discussed plans are Birmingham University and the London School of Economics.
Mr Higgins also said that students who applied early and accepted an offer during the autumn might be protected from top-up fees by the law. Universities might find themselves in trouble if they imposed a charge after making agreements with candidates, he said.
"If an applicant has accepted an offer, even conditionally, then a contract exists. It may be a highly difficult legal question," he said.
After A-Level results are published next Thursday, the clearing process, through which surplus places are allocated, will begin.
This year, 420,000 students are competing for 290,000 places, about 40,000 of which are likely to be filled through clearing. The numbers are almost identical to last year, Mr Higgins said yesterday.
At a conference to launch clearing, which begins on 19 August, he also highlighted new statistics which showed that more and more students were choosing to study closer to home. The proportion going to university in their home region rose from 42 per cent in 1994 to 46 per cent in 1995.
The change was partly due to financial pressures and partly because a greater proportion were mature students, who were likely to be married with children, Mr Higgins said.
Students from poorer backgrounds were more likely to study at new universities near their homes and to live with their parents, while those from the middle classes still went away to university.
Women were more likely to stay at home than men, the report showed, with eight out of 10 aged between 25 and 39 doing so. Students from ethnic minorities were also more likely to stay nearer to home. Three-quarters of all black entrants from the London area went to university in the same region last year.
More than half of all maths students decided to stay near home, while almost two-thirds of those taking medicine or dentistry moved away.
Mr Higgins said it was sad that social or financial circumstances were preventing some students from enjoying the benefits of living and working away from home.
"Perhaps it is equally character-building, spending three years living with your parents at the age of 19 as it is going away, though I suppose it depends on your relationship with your parents," he said.
t The official UCAS listings of places available through clearing will be published exclusively in the Independent, starting on Monday, 19 August.Reuse content