Universities minister Michelle Donelan wrote to vice-chancellors requesting their flexibility around admissions and asking them to honour all offers accepted, according to a copy of the letter seen by the PA news agency.
She wrote that once admissions capacity is reached and additional places cannot be provided “then providers will see if a student would like a suitable alternative course or offer a deferred place, and where possible try to prioritise those from disadvantaged backgrounds for admission this year”.
But the head of an independent education think tank said prioritising one group over another may not be easy.
The Higher Education Policy Institute’s Nick Hillman told The Times: “If I was a vice-chancellor, or running admissions, I would worry that the wording is open to all sort of challenges, even legal ones.
“Do they have sufficiently robust information to make that fine judgment? Is it based on parents’ salaries, or ethnicity, or other characteristics?”
It comes as universities were told they would receive extra funding to help increase capacity on a number of courses after warning they had limited space for students who saw their results increase.
Vice-chancellors and doctors had called for the cap on student numbers in medical schools to be removed amid the grading chaos.
The U-turn on Monday – which meant A-level results would be based on teachers’ estimated grades – came too late for many students who had already made choices about universities based on the grades they were initially awarded.
Leading universities have warned students who have higher grades may still be asked to defer their place if there is no longer space on their preferred course, a move signalled in Ms Donelan’s letter.
The Government’s Higher Education Taskforce – made up of university sector leaders – agreed on Wednesday to honour all offers across courses to students who meet their conditions this coming year wherever possible or, if maximum capacity is reached, to offer an alternative course or a deferred place.
It comes after the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service revealed around 15,000 students who were rejected by their first-choice university will now meet the offer conditions after the grading U-turn.
Figures from Ofqual show the proportion of A-level entries in England which received top grades increased to a record high following the changes to the system this week.