Seven out of the 24 leading universities have free places, which supports theories that less people would apply for universities because of the £9,000 tuition fee, writes the Telegraph.

The clearing system has made thirty thousand more places available but they might be unfilled since fewer school-leavers this year has met the entry requirements for the elite group’s universities.

The general secretary of the University and College Union, Sally Hunt, told the Telegraph: “Fewer students at UK universities this year represents the predictable failure of the Government’s attempt to create an artificial market for the most highly-qualified students.

“The minister’s recognition that higher tuition fees forced a scramble for places last year highlights the unfair nature of this Government’s hike in fees. At a time of high unemployment, we should be making it easier for people to get to university, not pricing them out.”

The universities minister, David Willetts, told the Universities UK annual conference at Keel University: “I think we are likely to see fewer students going to university this year because last year’s figure was partly artificially inflated by fewer people taking a gap year. But I still think we will have very high numbers of students going to university.”

Wendy Piatt, CEO at the Russel Group, blamed the decline on the Government that has given more places to cheaper universities. She said: “The first year of the new funding system was always going to be challenging and uncertain.

“But the Government’s core and margin policy of re-distributing places, largely on the basis of lower fees, meant universities had fewer places to offer to students with grades below AAB and this has had a knock-on impact.”

A spokeswoman for University of Southampton, another Russell Group university with application declines, told the Guardian: “For our 2012 intake, we forecast to have a reduction of 600 undergraduate students compared with last year, on a total undergraduate student population of around 15,500.

“Like many institutions, the University of Southampton has to deal with a general reduction in number of students applying for university and a smaller pool of students obtaining AAB+ grades due to a decrease, for the first time in 20 years, in the proportion of A-levels awarded A or A* grades.”

Queen Mary University of London had vacancies on 178 of its 194 courses.

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