Universities hoping to bid for extra student numbers for next year have had the door slammed shut, after the government identified a £200 million hole in its student support budget.
John Denham, the Universities Secretary, said last month that growth in student numbers must be curbed to help cope with miscalculations in the bill for higher education.
In a letter to vice-chancellors this week, David Eastwood, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that no additional student numbers were available to new bidders for 2009-10, as the 10,000 allowed by Mr Denham had already been filled.
"We will be making no further allocations of Additional Student Numbers (ASNs) for 2009-10, beyond those already approved or under consideration. In addition, we will make no further allocations of ASNs for 2010-11 at this stage," he said.
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and head of the Million+ think-tank, said that institutions which widen participation would suffer, as non-traditional students applied to university later.
"If universities which are more selective are allowed to keep their student numbers just because their students apply earlier, and numbers are reduced at the point of clearing, then this will be a very big blow to widening participation," he said.
Paul Marshall, executive director of the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive universities, was less concerned: "Hefce is trying to meet its commitments to strategic developments, but saying that, if you come knocking on the door ... now, then unfortunately there are no new numbers available. There are people out there who would want to go to university who will not be able to as the places won't exist."
A spokesman for Universities UK said the move might have "serious consequences" for some institutions, particularly those planning growth to make good shortfalls arising from the decision this year to withdraw £100 million of funding for students taking equivalent or lower-level qualifications.
David Willetts, shadow Universities Secretary, said: "We are now in the absurd position where the Government has officially got a target for 50 per cent participation in higher education by 2010, but its own funding policies mean there are no further places on top of what has already been allocated.
"This is a Government that is trying to drive a car with its foot on the accelerator and the brakes simultaneously."