A decline in the number of part-time students is the result of an unfair funding regime, it was claimed this week.
Figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the number of students starting part-time undergraduate courses in the UK fell by 3 per cent between 2006-07 and 2007-08, and by 2 per cent in England.
The think-tank Million+, which represents 28 post-1992 universities, blamed the decline on the Government's decision to exclude part-time students from the financial support package available to full-time students.
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of Million+, said: "The decline in the number of part-time enrolments in England is a direct effect of the Government's decision to exclude part-time students from the loan and grant support package that was made available to full-time students to help them cope with the introduction of variable fees.
"Universities have warned ministers from the start that this was unfair. The fact that they have been proved correct can be of little comfort to the Government, which has already had to freeze additional student numbers.
"It is even more illogical to retain a policy of charging part-time students upfront fees at a time of recession and rising unemployment. We now need a serious and urgent increase in higher education funding to ensure that additional student numbers are funded and that part-time study at university is free at the point of enrolment," Professor Ebdon said.
Full-time first-year undergraduate enrolments at UK universities are up 5 per cent to 459,395, and the number who were home students rose by the same proportion.
The number of UK students starting postgraduate courses fell by 2 per cent, but a rise in students from outside the European Union meant that the total number of postgraduates entering their first year did not change.
A total of 85,650 overseas students started undergraduate courses in the UK in 2007-08, up from 82,010 the previous year.
The overall number of students enrolled at university in the UK stayed virtually stable at 2,306,105, with a 1 per cent drop in the proportion of UK students in the system.
David Willetts, Shadow Universities Secretary, said the figures sounded "the death knell of Labour's target of 50 per cent of young adults going on to higher education. We have got used to student numbers growing year after year, but that trend is now over."
David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, said the number of people going into higher education in England was at "an all-time high".