Almost 100 out of 130 universities in England could be forced to take fewer undergraduates this year numbers following the introduction of Coalition reforms designed to drive down tuition fees, it emerged.
Many members of the elite Russell Group are among those facing reductions, with Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton being particularly hit.
Data from the Government’s Higher Education Funding Council for England suggests some newer universities such as Bedfordshire and East London are expecting to lose around one-in-eight places.
The cuts are being imposed following the introduction of new rules that effectively penalise universities charging more than £7,500 in student fees from this autumn.
It means large numbers of places are being shifted towards cheap further education colleges. Ministers are also lifting controls on the number of bright students gaining at least two A grades and a B at A-level that universities can recruit – leading to an inevitable scramble towards a small number of top institutions.
Sir Alan Langlands, the funding council’s chief executive, denied the loss of student places would tip any institution into "significant financial trouble".
But Prof Michael Farthing, vice-chancellor of Sussex University and chairman of the 1994 Group, which represents many small research institutions, said the figures show that “many excellent students will be denied places at their first choice universities.”
“The number of students universities are allowed to recruit has been cut across the sector, with 20,000 places auctioned off to institutions with lower than average fees,” he said.
“Far from giving the best universities freedom to take on more students this represents a push to a cut-price education."
Today, HEFCE announced funding and estimated student places for universities and colleges in 2012/13.
It emegerd that teaching funds had been cut by £1.1 billion – to £3.2bn – while cash for research has been frozen at £1.6bn.
Under Coalition reforms, funding gaps are expected to be plugged by a rise in annual student tuition fees – from £3,290 to £9,000.
But to keep the student loans bill down, some 20,000 places are being taken from all institutions and redistributed to universities and colleges charging less than £7,500.
At the same time, 10,000 places – offered in previous years to cope with a sudden surge in applications – are not being made available in 2012.
In a report published today, the funding council outlined how places would be distributed this year.
Some 98 out of 129 universities – 76 per cent – are estimated to see some drop in their student numbers. A quarter could see cuts of at least 10 per cent.
Fourteen out of 20 English members of the Russell Group also face cuts, with Liverpool losing as many as 6.4 per cent of places and Leeds 5.1 per cent.
All 12 English members of the 1994 Group are also facing reductions, including 11 per cent at Essex and 10.5 per cent at Goldsmith’s College, London.
But newer universities are being hit hardest, figures suggest. Cuts of at least 12 per cent will be seen at Bedfordshire, East London, Liverpool Hope, Middlesex and Northampton.
The funding council insist figures are estimates based on recruitment in previous years and final allocations could be higher as universities compete against each other to recruit students gaining two As and a B at A-level. This is likely to benefit the top universities the most.
But the biggest year-on-year rises in student numbers are likely to be seen at further education colleges, which can often run degree courses at a fraction of the price of universities.
Kingston College in West London is seeing a 1,115 per cent rise in places – from 20 to 223 students.
David Willetts, the Universities Minister, 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.”
But Libby Hackett, director of University Alliance, said: “Despite continued demand for university places we are seeing significant drops in student places across the sector with some institutions subject to cuts of 12 per cent in just one year.
“The places which are being taken out of the system in 2012-13, or transferring to further education, means that there will be 20,000 fewer young people able to go to university compared to last year.”