More than 200,000 students could be rejected from university as institutions are forced to slash the number of places they offer due to public sector cuts.
Almost three-quarters of universities are cutting or freezing places for UK undergraduates this year, the Daily Telegraph has reported.
The cuts come as more people seek to undertake university courses due to job shortages during the recession. Demand for degree courses is already up by almost 15% nationally.
Some universities contacted by the newspaper reported increases in applications of up to 62% compared with the same time last year, while almost seven students are applying for every place.
Almost one-third of universities will admit more foreign students who can be charged much higher fees but are not subjected to the same restrictions on places.
According to the survey, 31% of universities are cutting the number of places for UK and EU undergraduates, while 40% are preparing to freeze numbers.
Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of Salford University, warned that a “lost generation” of young people would be deprived of degree courses.
He said: “A silent issue in the election campaign was the plight of up to 200,000 British school leavers who will not be going to university in September this year.
“What is more, this situation will probably persist for the next two to three years, resulting in a lost generation of some half-a-million young British adults being deprived of a higher education qualification.”
David Green, vice-chancellor of Worcester University, said: “My earlier prediction that there will be around 220,000 unhappy people will be about right. Of those, about 100,000 will be pretty well-qualified and motivated students who would have been accepted in previous years.”