29/03/2012 06:37 BST

Education Reforms Cause Talented Students To Miss Out On Top University Places

Talented students will be denied places at "highly regarded" universities due to the government's education reforms, a university group has warned.

Additionally, official figures show more than a quarter of universities could see at least a 10% drop in student numbers, with newer institutions set to be the hardest hit.

In total, around three in four universities are likely to have an overall drop in numbers, according to data published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

Statistics published by the council show that 34 institutions (26%) are estimated to have a 10% or greater drop in student numbers compared to last year, and in some cases it could be over 12%.

The falls are likely to be caused in part by the government's decision to hand over 20,000 places to universities and colleges that keep fees to £7,500 or less in a scheme known as "core and margin".

The cap has also been lifted on the number of students holding at least two A grades and a B at A-level that universities can recruit.

HEFCE chief executive Sir Alan Langlands said he did not believe the losses would tip any institution into "significant financial trouble".

"A lot of these institutions, I suspect, will be charging more than £7,500 and therefore had a top-slice of the margin without the opportunity to win back numbers and without the opportunity on any significant scale to win AAB numbers."

It is likely there will be "some reduction" in these institutions, he said.

"Given their fee levels, and the grants we are providing, that doesn't tip any of these institutions, we believe, into significant financial trouble."

Sir Alan added that when the "core and margin" places were announced, institutions had the opportunity to alter their fees and "decide if they wanted to be part of the game or not".

He said people have taken "conscious decisions" about this, and he thought that all cases were "confident that they can ride it out".

Overall, 98 out of 129 universities (76%) are estimated to see some drop in their student numbers, the HEFCE figures suggest.

This is assuming that they retain the same numbers of AAB students this year as last year.

In total, there will be 10,910 fewer places available in universities and colleges than there were in 2011.

This is partly because the 7,000 extra places that were introduced last year for one year only have been withdrawn, as well as a further loss of around 5,000 places.

Earlier this month, HEFCE announced that further education colleges would receive more than half of the 20,000 core and margin places.

The offer of these 20,000 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.

HEFCE also announced today funding levels for universities for 2012/13.

The figures show that funding for teaching has been cut by £1.1bn to £3.2bn, while money for research remains the same as last year at £1.6bn.

The gaps in funding are expected to be made up by the Government's move to triple tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 per year from this autumn.

Langlands said there had been a "switch in the balance" of who was providing funding for higher education now.

"Many students from 2012-13 onwards, as graduates, are going to have to repay a lot of this funding and I don't think we can under-estimate the effect on them and their families."

Universities Minister David Willetts said: "We want a student-focused higher education sector, more choice over where to study and a renewed focus on the quality of the student experience.

"That's why we're freeing up centralised number controls, improving information for prospective students and driving a new focus on the academic experience."

Professor Michael Farthing, chairman of the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities issued the warning bright students will miss out on places at highly regarded universities.

"The information released today by HEFCE rubber stamps the fact that many excellent students will be denied places at their first choice universities. Any university losing AAB students will not be allowed to take on students with different grades, such as two Bs and an A, to take their place.

"There are only so many AAB students to go around and they are likely to be snapped up by a few self-declared 'elite' institutions, able to rely on historical brand prestige to attract applications."