The race to snap up the UK's highest-achieving students may have caused this year's record fall in undergraduate numbers, a report has suggested.
Fifty-four thousand fewer students started at UK universities this autumn (464,900 in total) compared with 2011-12 - an 11 per cent fall, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service's End of Cycle Report 2012. Admissions to English higher education institutions alone were down by 51,000 - a 13 per cent drop.
About half of the recruitment dip can be explained by lower deferral rates in 2011-12 as thousands of students sought to avoid tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year, says the report, published on 13 December.
But the remaining fall in acceptances - about ,000 fewer students entering higher education for the 2012-13 entry cycle compared with 2011-12 - still represents a 6 per cent drop, the study says.
It suggests that the lower numbers may have been caused by changes in the way universities made offers to students rather than falling application levels, as institutions concentrated on the top students.
Of the 1.2 million offers made by higher education institutions, 42 per cent (up from 37 per cent the previous year) were made to applicants with offers from every one of the five universities they had applied to.
Such students typically hold better predicted grades but have only an 18 per cent likelihood of taking up any one offer, given their range of choices, compared with those holding one offer, who have a 70 per cent chance of accepting it.
"Institutions made fewer offers overall and the applicant pool was smaller, so that's quite a bad start if you want to get the same number of people into university," said Mark Corver, head of analysis and research at Ucas. "There was also a greater concentration of offers on the same candidates.
"Offers to those with a 'full house'...went up by 10 per cent and those applicants can obviously only go to one university."
With more offers to those with the best predicted grades, the number of people receiving no offers at all - 40,000 in total - remained high. The focus on the same students is likely to have led to 26,000 fewer acceptances, according to Ucas' analysis, roughly corresponding to the ,000 fall for 2012-13.
The change in offer behaviour is likely to be linked by some in the sector to the introduction of a market for top students, with universities allowed to recruit unlimited numbers of undergraduates gaining at least AAB at A level or the equivalent.
First choice or nothing
A sharp decline in the uptake of "insurance offers", used when applicants fail to gain the grades needed for their first-choice universities, may also have contributed to the fall in student numbers, the report adds.
Acceptances via insurance offers fell by 25.7 per cent, down 10,400 students to 30,000 in total, the report says, with students appearing to opt for a "first choice or nothing" policy as fees soared.
About 600 fewer 18-year-olds took up places in clearing this year, a 2.4 per cent drop, reinforcing the sense that students have become choosier.
"The weakness in demand was first reflected in lower application rates, but we also saw a second kind of weakness," said Dr Corver.
"Although there were more courses on offer in clearing, the acceptance rate or demand from certain applicants only moved a small amount."
However, overall acceptances made via clearing rose by 9 per cent - 55,700 in total - as several more selective universities chose to participate vigorously in the post-results placement route for the first time.
Dr Corver added that he was surprised that acceptance rates had not increased by more than 1 percentage point after applications from English students fell by almost 10 per cent.
If they had risen by 5 percentage points, they would have offset the fall in applications and maintained student numbers at 2011-12 levels.
"Lots of people, myself included, thought acceptance rates would go up further, but it did not happen," said Dr Corver.