As many as 100,000 extra students could enter the race for university places next year, driving up entry grades and causing thousands of well-qualified candidates to be rejected, experts warned this week.
Admissions specialists, analysts, gap-year organisations and politicians predict that applicants will face the toughest-ever competition for places as droves of students call off plans to take a gap year during 2005 to avoid paying higher tuition fees from 2006.
Research has shown that more than two-thirds of an estimated 100,000 students a year who opt to take time out will call off their plans next year.
Next year there is also likely to be an explosion in the number of applications from students from the ten new European Union states.
Experts predict that as many as 25,000 extra students from the EU accession states will enter the system by 2010, with the bulk seeking places at the earliest opportunity - 2005.
This will coincide with growing demand from home students as the numbers of 18 to 21-year-olds in the UK population rises and success rates at A level continue to increase.
There is a predicted 12 per cent population growth among 18 to 21-year-olds between 2002 and 2010.
"There is going to be terrific competition next year to add to the already intense situation," said Brian Heap, author of the annual Degree Course Offers guidebooks.
"Entry requirements will be increased, and where universities already demand straight As and Bs at A level, they will increasingly have to set additional tests or ask for written and marked work from sixthformers to help them pick the best," he added.
Cambridge and Bristol universities, already massively oversubscribed, this week predicted they would have to turn away students who would get places in any normal year.