The plans are likely to benefit top universities, with around three in four universities likely to have an overall drop in numbers
Cambridge University will be able to enrol more bright students under government plans. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian
Universities face a fresh bidding war for students next year, after ministers unveiled plans aimed at allowing more bright youngsters to gain their first choice place.
Under reforms revealed on Friday, institutions will be able to recruit as many teenagers as they want with at least an A and two B grades at A-level in 2013.
It is likely to mean that universities are competing for around 120,000 students – one in three of the places available.
This year, institutions were allowed to recruit as many students as they wanted with two As and a B, around 85,000 people in total.
The expansion means it is expected that a further 35,000 youngsters will now join this pool of unrestricted students that institutions can recruit from.
The move comes despite pleas from university leaders, who have warned ministers against moving too fast with the scheme.
The universities minister, David Willetts, said: “A third of all students will now be free of number controls. This is what our university reforms are all about – putting choice and power in the hands of students.
“We are rolling back the controls on places at individual universities that have been a barrier to competition. Students will gain as universities attract them by offering a high-quality academic experience.”
The plans are likely to benefit the country’s top universities, which will be able to expand the numbers of bright students they take.
But other institutions are likely to miss out, if bright undergraduates choose to go to their more prestigious rivals.
Ministers also announced that an extra 5,000 places would be handed to universities and colleges that kept their fees low next year.
These places, known as “core and margin” places, are awarded to institutions that set fees at £7,500 or less.
Some 20,000 core and margin places were awarded this year.
The offer of these places was widely seen as an attempt by ministers to keep fees low after it began to emerge that many universities and colleges would charge at, or close to, the maximum £9,000 from this autumn.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “It seems very premature for the government to extend its AAB policy when we have yet to see the impact of it. This looks like the triumph of ideology over evidence-based policy-making.”
The announcement comes weeks after official figures showed that more than a quarter of universities could see at least a 10% drop in student numbers as a result of government reforms.
Many of those set to be hardest hit by the government’s overhaul of student places are newer institutions that plan to charge more than £7,500 from this autumn.
Statistics published by the council show that 34 institutions (26%) are estimated to have a 10% or greater drop in student numbers this year compared with last year, and in some cases it could be over 12%.
The falls are likely to be caused in part by the government’s core and margin scheme, and the cap on AAB students being lifted this year.
Source : http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/apr/27/cap-students-universities