Talented sixth-formers who narrowly miss their predicted A-level grades could face an agonising battle to find a suitable university place this year, heads have warned, despite a fall in the numbers applying.
Changes to the way the government allocates student numbers mean that universities will have less flexibility to accept students who have only just failed to meet an offer of AAB or above.
Students falling short of the mark could also face longer delays than usual after results day until their places are confirmed or denied, as universities grapple with the new system. And insurance offers are unlikely to provide a safety net: 42 per cent of pupils' insurance offers ask for the same or higher grades than their first choice.
The issue emerged in the run-up to this year's A-level results, published next week, after the government gave the green light to English universities to accept as many students as they wish provided that they achieve AAB or above in their A levels or equivalent qualifications.
Core student numbers for those achieving lower grades are still strictly capped and universities face fines for exceeding their allocation. This means that pupils who fail to meet their AAB offers cannot be accommodated elsewhere unless space is available among the core allocation.
Fears have been raised that the problem could be exacerbated by schools predicting grades that are too high for their pupils. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) said that three-quarters of predictions for pupils taking three or more A levels were overestimated by one grade last year.
Sue Kirkham, education policy specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said she was concerned that highly able students might miss out on places, even if there were mitigating circumstances such as illness or bereavement while taking their exams.
"Universities who would have looked upon them favourably in the past won't be able to do that this year," Ms Kirkham said, adding that the changes made the whole business of university entrance "much more complicated" and gave well-supported pupils an advantage. "We hope that students will have access to sufficient advice and guidance this summer," she said.
Admissions experts painted a more positive picture, although they admitted it was uncertain how the post A-level rush for places would pan out this year. There are suggestions that pupils performing better than expected in their exams may actually face a "buyers' market" as universities tout for AAB students during the clearing window.
Matthew Andrews, academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University and former chair of the Academic Registrars Council, said: "The issue is quite how complex it is becoming; it is very difficult to predict where people are going to end up this year. But applications are down, so institutions will have more places in clearing than in recent years.
"Also, most institutions will try to look favourably on those who have missed their grades. Tutors in that situation do try to accept the student where they can. They have already made an investment in that student."
Andrea Robertson, director of customer operations at Ucas, agreed that the concerns were valid. "For some courses there is an increased likelihood that some institutions will not be able to accept `near-miss' applicants, when in previous years they might have been able to," she said.
The situation will change again in August 2013, when universities will be able to recruit unlimited numbers of students who achieve the lower offer of ABB or above.
478,590 - Total applications to universities in England in 2011.
430,755 - Total applications in 2012.
205,539 - Total applications to universities from 18-year-olds in 2011.
197,046 - Total applications from 18-year-olds in 2012.
Original headline: Miss grades and students could miss out on university