Some of the leading access universities in England are braced for major cuts after this year's funding allocations, signalling the increasingly cut-throat market for extra student places.
Institutions whose courses are proving unpopular with students will see their budgets cut this autumn under the harsher funding regime that no longer bails out institutions indefinitely.
Those facing real-terms funding cuts of 1.5 per cent or more next year after failing to fill student places include Staffordshire, Luton, Middlesex and Coventry universities. London South Bank University will also be hit because it is recruiting fewer expensive engineering students. The largest cut - 9.3 per cent - will be imposed on Cranfield University for poor research ratings.
Overall, the sector will need to fill an extra 250,000 places by 2010 to meet the government's expansion target - with increasing numbers of well-qualified school-leavers predicted in future. This week, the Higher Education Funding Council for England bid for cash to fund these places as part of its spending review submission.
An extra 20,000 full-time equivalent places will be created for the coming academic year, with 5,000 foundation degree places to be allocated later this month. Overall, the teaching grant is up 2.9 per cent in real terms this year, totalling £3.8 billion. This is equivalent to 0.3 per cent once the expansion of students and tuition fees income have been included.
But universities opening their doors to poor students as part of the expansion drive are facing particular funding problems.
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Luton, said: "The funding council reviewed the widening participation premium and calculated it to be 35 per cent - and then decided to give us a third of it. What we are saying is those universities that are delivering on widening participation are losing out and the decision is needed to fund them."
Universities UK said it would cost £254 million a year to meet the costs of access students.
Full tables available in the statistics section
Funding allocations for England 2004/2005