Coronavirus: Universities offer students guaranteed places
Queen's University of Belfast (QUB) has offered guaranteed places to about 2,500 Northern Irish students before they get their A-level results.
The university said the "unprecedented step" would "reduce anxiety and provide clarity for young people".
The places represent about 70% of QUB's 2020 intake of NI undergraduates.
Both Queen's and Ulster universities had previously said they could face multi-million-pound losses due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Following the move by Queen's, Ulster University said it would also immediately be moving to guarantee places to applicants where appropriate, "to ensure a consistent university admissions process for Northern Ireland, support the wellbeing of applicants and ensure they are fully informed".
"We will, of course, honour offers for students who do not secure an early guaranteed place but nonetheless subsequently gain grades that meet their offer," said an Ulster University spokesperson.
The QUB move appears to contradict previous warnings from Economy Minister Diane Dodds against the university setting its own admission procedures.
Ms Dodds had previously said there should be a co-ordinated approach across UK universities to avoid "pressurising students with unconditional and incentivised offers this year".
However, in a statement the Vice-Chancellor of QUB, Professor Ian Greer, said the university had "received strong support for this intervention, notably from many school principals and local business leaders".
Students who have had their places guaranteed are those who had selected Queen's as their first-choice university in the application process and had a conditional offer of a place.
Conditional offers normally become a confirmed place only after a student receives the A-level grades stipulated by the university.
The university said that those getting a guaranteed place for September had been "selected using a rigorous evidence-based assessment of their academic credentials and propensity to succeed at Queen's".
QUB said that for those students the university held enough information regarding their previous academic performance to enable an informed decision to made before their A-level results.
A-level exams were cancelled in Northern Ireland, Wales and England in 2020 with results based on "calculated grades" instead.
A-level results are due to be awarded on 13 August 2020.
About 2,500 Northern Irish pupils have now been told their place at QUB has been guaranteed no matter what A-level grades they get in August.
However, there are other Northern Irish applicants who will have to wait for their A-level results to have their place at Queen's confirmed.
"Applicants who still hold a conditional offer will have their place at the university confirmed if they meet the conditions of their offer when calculated grades are released in August," a university spokesperson said.
Students who have applied to some subjects - including medicine, dentistry, nursing and midwifery and social work - where there are number controls will also have to wait for their exam results to have their place confirmed.
'Less than a third return'
Prof Greer said there were a number of reasons Queen's had made the "unprecedented" move.
"As we look to the future, we know that essential to our economic recovery will be our young people," he said.
"Statistics show that of the approx. 5,000 students who leave Northern Ireland to study elsewhere each year, less than a third return.
"More than ever, Northern Ireland needs its young people to remain here and be part of the recovery."
There have also been fears that universities in the rest of the UK would increase offers to Northern Irish students.
Prof Greer said the coronavirus pandemic had altered "the landscape of higher education".
"Our universities are operating in a very competitive market, with around 30,000 additional places available to GB universities."
Meanwhile, Ulster University said it was "here to advise and support applicants every step of the way" under the unique circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We will continue to consider additional applications throughout the clearing process," said its spokesperson.
"Applicants should take the time to feel confident and fully informed in order to make the right choice for them.
"We look forward to welcoming those students planning to join us when our academic year gets underway on 21 September."
Meanwhile, new figures from the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) show that there has been a rise in proportion of 18 year olds in Northern Ireland who have applied to university this year.
Of Northern Ireland's 18 year olds, 48.2% have applied to university - 18,150 applicants in total.
That is a higher proportion than England or Wales.