Rising A-level attainment and population growth could see an extra 240,000 candidates apply for an undergraduate place by the end of the decade, it was predicted this week.
New projections published by the Higher Education Policy Institute suggest that universities will need an additional £1 billion by the end of the decade if they are to maintain the current rate of funding per student.
In 2002-03, 1.35 million people applied for an undergraduate place. Hepi predicted that, in total, the extra demand could be between 160,000 and 240,000 or the equivalent of 16 average-size universities.
Postgraduate numbers are forecast to rise by about 60,000 by 2010.
Demographic changes by 2010 alone could see demand for places rise by 120,000. But Hepi said that much of the growth in the 18 to 20-year-old population would take place by 2007 and that demand for places due to demography would "level off" towards the end of the decade.
On top of this, demand for undergraduate places could rise by between 30,000 and 100,000 depending on the extent of increases in A-level attainment. Finally, an extra 12,000 to 19,000 students are forecast to apply from the ten European Union accession countries.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of Hepi, said: "One of the main points would be competition between students. While there may be a place for students somewhere in the sector, they may not get the place at the university on the course that they were hoping for."
Libby Aston, the report's author, said there was "international evidence" to suggest that the prospective top-up fees regime from 2006 would not have a "great deal of impact" on the demand for places.
Hepi's report is a downward revision of projections published last June, which put the additional demand at between 180,000 and 250,000 undergraduate places.
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "This paper clearly shows that we have a choice: either we meet clear student demand and expand or we place a cap on people's ambitions and we contract. This government is determined to increase higher education opportunities."