||with about 100,000 applicants expected to fail to find a place this autumn.
Birmingham University, one of the prestigious Russell Group which represents the top 18 higher-education research institutions, pulled out of university clearing well ahead of schedule yesterday after filling all its places. Even hard-to-fill modern languages courses were oversubscribed, with applicants being turned away.
Nationally, 499,311 applications were made for university places this year, an all-time high. By last night, places had been snapped up at a record rate - with 309,777 confirmed, compared with just 284,451 at this stage last year.
That left nearly 190,000 still officially in the hunt - of which Ucas, the university and colleges admissions service, estimated around 100,000 will end up without a place this autumn. Education insiders predict the final total of places on offer will be about 390,000.
Student leaders attributed the substantial rise in applications - about 10 per cent on last year's figures - to prospective students trying to escape top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year which come into force in September 2006. Julian Nicholds, the national vice- president of the National Union of Students, said: "The apparent rush for places yesterday is completely unsurprising. It is perfectly understandable that students are fearful about the increased graduate debt that the new fee regime may graduate debt that the new fee regime may bring. The thought of a graduate life bogged down in thousands of pounds worth of debt is potentially a huge deterrent for many students."
He warned that many of the disappointed students "may now dismiss higher education altogether, simply because of their concerns about what the increased debt 2006 may represent for them".
Professor Michael Sterling, chairman of the Russell Group and vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, predicted it would be much harder for students to find places this autumn. "We've had a 10 per cent increase in applications this year," he said. "I think it would be fair to say that students will find there is much more competition for places. I've talked to some of the other members of the Russell Group and they report similar experiences."
Normally, Birmingham would have remained in the clearing scheme until next week.
Other universities were also putting up the shutters yesterday afternoon. At Bristol, only one course had a place left - audiology. The university had rejected 53 per cent of those who had applied for places.
At Bath University, only 24 vacancies were left at lunchtime yesterday. The institution had had to reject 737 candidates.
The University of Manchester said it was "virtually full" and was only talking to "well-qualified students".
Kingston University, in Surrey, said large numbers of courses "didn't even make it into clearing" because of the surge in applications - citing pharmacy, law, criminology and journalism.
Some universities, though, still had hundreds of places. London Metropolitan - an amalgamation of the former University of North London and London Guildhall - had 620 places on offer.
At the University of Greenwich, admissions staff reported that some subjects had no vacancies at all - including primary-teacher training, most nursing courses and midwifery. However, it still had places to fill in subjects such as engineering and computing.
A spokesman for Derby University said: "We have made a higher number of verbal offers this year compared with last year." Courses filled included nursing studies, occupational therapy and applied social work - with several others close to closing their books.
The University of Bourne-mouth said it had "fewer than 60 vacancies" in design, engineering, computing and theatre practice. It had turned away students in media studies, sports and physiotherapy.
Last night, Ucas issued figures which showed that 103,629 applicants were still seeking a place through the clearing system. Vacancies were still available on 38,781 courses, many of which have more than one empty seat.
Ucas predicted that around 40,000 students would still be found places through clearing, based on trends in past years. By yesterday, only 2,372 places had been clinched through clearing so officials were insisting there was still hope for many youngsters - provided they were prepared to be flexible in what they were looking for.
A further 82,370 applicants are either still awaiting a decision from universities as to whether they have accepted them - or the applicants have yet to confirm a firm offer.
Half of these are expected eventually to pull out. So far only 3,335 applicants have withdrawn from the process altogether.