Large post-1992 universities may lose hundreds more student places next year to help protect specialist performing arts colleges and "vulnerable" subjects such as science.
An analysis of changes announced last week by the Higher Education Funding Council for England suggests that big mainstream institutions will be the main losers from attempts to allay concerns over the impact of the AAB and core-and-margin policies.
Under the modifications, strategically important and vulnerable subjects (Sivs) will now be exempt from cuts to create a margin of 20,000 places for cheaper providers, while colleges specialising in theatre, music and art could opt out of the process altogether.
The tweaks mean that Hefce will need to cut student numbers by an extra 1 per cent at other institutions, with larger universities that recruit primarily sub-AAB students and with smaller proportions of Sivs hardest hit.
Libby Hackett, director of the University Alliance group of institutions, said: "The presumption that these universities can take the hit is extremely frustrating.
"It comes down to a fundamental lack of value attributed to certain parts of our higher education sector by this government."
Alliance universities deliver about a quarter of all Sivs places, but the large size of some of the institutions means that they form only about 11 per cent of their overall student numbers - compared with 22 per cent at the Russell Group and 17 per cent at the 1994 Group.
Ms Hackett claimed that the Alliance would provide a larger proportion of Sivs places if the list of subjects were up to date and not "written from a redbrick perspective".
There is also anger that specialist colleges will be protected, even though larger universities offer thousands of places with portfolio-type admissions.
Mary Stuart, head of the University of Lincoln, said that while she did not blame Hefce as it was in an "impossible position", Lincoln would have no protection for such arts subjects despite them making up about 30 per cent of provision.
"(The specialists) are being given a level of stability when we are not. There are a lot of large institutions that have embedded art schools, and historically they took them on in order to protect them," she said.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the latest changes would benefit a small group of universities but would produce "severe constraints and potential damage to almost all the rest of the sector".
"Once again Hefce has been put in the position of trying to rescue a bad policy, but I fear the measures they are introducing here are a sticking plaster," he said.
There was a coalition that swallowed a fly...
The plans for student numbers in England are starting to sound like a nursery rhyme, it has been suggested - one that does not have a happy ending.
There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, in which an elderly woman resorts to eating larger and larger animals to rid herself of a tiny insect, encapsulates policy, according to James Naismith, professor of chemical biology at the University of St Andrews.
"We can see that the latest fixes are not the end of the story," he said. "We started with the fly and are now approaching the goat, but there is a tragic sense of inevitability about swallowing the horse."