England's funding council does not know how many honours degree-level student places have been transferred to lower-level courses at further education colleges through the government's core-and-margin system.
A Higher Education Funding Council for England spokesman told Times Higher Education that it was "difficult to know" how many places would be diverted to vocational higher national certificates and higher national diploma qualifications.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of new universities, questioned whether students, parents and MPs understood the potential loss of honours-level places, calling it a "pretty extraordinary thing to have happened as an outcome of the government's reforms".
"This raises big questions about student choice," she said. "Ministers need to explain why they are supporting the transfer of higher education numbers into further education for study at a lower level at the expense of universities which are tried and tested in terms of quality."
For 2012-13, the core-and-margin system has deducted a portion of non-AAB places from each university to form a pool of 20,000 places allocated to further education colleges and to universities charging average tuition fees of £7,500 or less. The system, which may be expanded in the future, is in part an attempt to reduce the cost of the new student loans scheme.
One of the 65 additional further education colleges to have a direct funding relationship with Hefce as a result of the system is Amersham & Wycombe College, which has been awarded 117 margin places.
Asked how it would allocate the places, a spokeswoman for the college said: "We offer foundation degrees, one BA top-up [course], HNDs and one HNC [course]. We will be expanding our numbers on existing [foundation degrees] to respond to pent-up demand, as well as developing and growing a range of new HND programmes in order to further expand our affordable offer into a wider range of subjects."
She added that 15 of the 117 margin places would go to the BA top-up programme.
Barnet and Southgate College, which won 114 places, does not offer honours-level courses. It said that places "will be distributed among Level 4 and 5 vocational HNCs and HNDs, as well as foundation degrees".
Some of the places allocated to further education colleges have gone to institutions whose qualifications are awarded by Pearson-owned examination board Edexcel rather than by universities.
The Hefce spokesman said: "Further education colleges were required to have courses validated by a higher education institution or Edexcel, but as student numbers are not linked to particular courses, institutions are free to use their allocated numbers as they see fit.
"It would be difficult to know how many places will go to HNCs and HNDs, because the institutions themselves do not know how many students they will recruit on to each course in 2012-13."