Some universities have dropped their entrance grades so substantially this year in order to fill places that they are accepting students who would otherwise have attended further education colleges.
That was one theory put forward after a conference heard that the number of full-time higher education students taking up places at colleges this year had fallen by at least 10 per cent.
A number of other factors have also been blamed, including mature students' fears of high levels of debt and the breakdown of many degree-validation arrangements between colleges and universities under the strain of a more competitive higher education system.
Andy Westwood, chief executive of Guild HE, told delegates at Higher Education in FE Colleges, a conference held in London on 11 October, that provisional figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions System reveal a 10 to 11 per cent drop in full-time student numbers for 2012-13.
He said that the figure was comparable to the decline in the number of accepted places in some universities, but added that this would be slightly smaller than the drop for the sector as a whole.
Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges, offered a similar estimate.
Out of colleges' quota of 35,000 full-time higher education places this year, he expected around 4,000 to go unfilled.
He said "various factors have contributed to the shortfall", including the "late notification" of how many places colleges would receive under the government's "core-and-margin" reallocation of student numbers to cheaper providers.
Other factors included "concerns that mature students have about debt and the breakdown in some university/college franchise agreements", Mr Davy added.
The government wants to see more higher education delivered in colleges in England. More than half of the 20,000 margin places reserved for institutions charging less than £7,500 a year were distributed to such institutions.
Mr Davy cautioned that the figures were not final and did not cover all higher education students going to college, as many were "not recruited via Ucas and are often late in the cycle".
James Winter, outgoing chair of the Council of Validating Universities, told delegates that the emphasis on competition and institutional branding meant that many universities were now unwilling to validate courses delivered at colleges, creating "mayhem".
He also said that many universities had dropped their entry criteria so significantly during the clearing process that they had picked up students who would otherwise have gone to college.
Sixty-five colleges were awarded higher education places for the first time as part of the distribution of margin places this year, "but the numbers are so small...the income will barely cover the cost of the administration that their involvement ... will bring", Mr Winter said.
Mr Westwood said that the overall drop in student numbers at universities and colleges meant that the government would have more money to spend over the course of the rest of this Parliament.
"It also suggests that there won't be as much ambition on price competition," he added.
One motivation for driving down institutional fees via competition was to save money, but with fewer students entering higher education, this would be less of a government imperative, Mr Westwood predicted.