The Browne Review promises universities that they will "face no restrictions" on how many students they can admit, but adds that the government must manage the money available for student finance.
The review proposes a system under which the government would set a minimum entry tariff each year. A proportion of places would also be allocated outside of this system.
"Government...will be able to predict to a reasonable degree of certainty what the entry standard should be to manage the amount of money it has available to spend on student finance," says the report.
Caroline Gipps, vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, said the system would be "a mechanism for controlling the number of students by restricting access to finance".
Currently, universities are free to decide entry requirements.
"If a minimum tariff is set by the government each year, it could be moved upwards to reduce the number of students...We've never had that sort of control mechanism before," she said.
"My worry is for the young person from a disadvantaged background who doesn't get good grades, who comes from a family with no history of education at a high level, but has the motivation and ability to complete a degree," she added.
George Holmes, vice-chancellor of the University of Bolton, said it would be wrong to "move the goalposts year-on-year as a financial expediency".
A report by the Higher Education Policy Institute says that the Browne Review's messages about liberalising recruitment are confusing.
It says: "On the one hand, it recognises that there has to be a limit on the total number of students because of...public finances...On the other, it wishes to allow the market to rule. It is unable to offer a satisfactory resolution to this conundrum."
Hepi adds that a national threshold for admission according to the number of Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff points achieved would mean that "universities will be told by the government whom they may and whom they may not admit - a major new intrusion into university autonomy".
It concludes that such plans are "probably unworkable".