Funding chiefs have been accused of sparking a "dirty tricks" recruitment war and jeopardising standards in a late attempt to bump up this year's student intake.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England's decision in July to raise recruitment limits has led to poaching and unethical marketing activities by institutions, say admissions chiefs.
Some universities have denigrated the standards of other institutions or offered incentives to students who ask to be released from an accepted offer, it is claimed. Others have admitted they contemplated lowering entry standards to fill more funded places.
Institutions that rely on clearing to help them hit their recruitment targets have complained of "havoc" caused by Hefce's decision to double the margin above the maximum number of full-time undergraduates institutions can recruit without being penalised.
Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that institutions have been struggling to hit new targets. While Hefce is funding an extra 19,000 full-time places, Ucas figures show the number of accepted places is 333,798 - only 6,147 more than at the same time last year.
According to John McCarthy, head of student recruitment at Liverpool John Moores University, some institutions have broken Ucas anti-poaching rules. He said the parents of some students who had accepted places had alerted the university to attempts by other institutions to rubbish John Moores. Others had been offered bursaries to encourage them to ask to be released from an offer.
He said: "We believe this poaching is quite unethical. Students take a long time to make their choices and to try to tempt them away in this way with scaremongering tactics is just not on."
A spokesman for Ucas said institutions that attempt to poach students who have accepted an offer risk being struck off the Ucas list. "We have not been alerted to any instances of this, but if an admissions officer wishes to make a complaint, we will take a very serious view of it," he said.
Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, said Ucas was "living in cloud cuckoo land" if it thought no poaching was going on. He added that more students than usual had asked to be released from accepted offers or had just not turned up.
A Hefce spokesman said: "In response to the wishes of the universities and colleges we have consistently tried to ensure that they are given as much flexibility as possible in their recruitment policies. This announcement is the latest stage in this process and, coupled with the recent announcement about additional student numbers, will also enable more students to attend the institution of their choice."