Figures published by Labour suggest that of the 20,000 student places the government is removing from universities’ general quotas to auction off to institutions charging fees of £7,500 or less in 2012, over a quarter will be snapped up by colleges.
The move - set out in the higher education White Paper – is intended to drive down prices, but universities have claimed that student choice is being restricted.
Critics say the government is effectively forcing thousands of students, who are likely to be from poorer backgrounds, to go to a college rather than a university.
However, David Willetts, the universities minister, said: “It is wrong to suggest that courses offered at further education colleges are of lower quality than universities.”
Gareth Thomas, Labour shadow universities minister, said the move came at a time when colleges themselves were facing budget cuts.
“The government’s plans put at risk thousands of places at universities with international reputations while expecting further education colleges that are facing cuts of 25 per cent themselves to offer far more degree places,” he said. “This is yet another sign that the government's plans for universities have not been thought through, and crucially, which put the quality of higher education in this country at risk.”
The Labour analysis, which uses data from the House of Commons library, suggests that the colleges that would gain places include Newcastle College (400), Blackpool and Fylde, Blackburn, Bradford and Manchester colleges (300 each), and Hull College and the Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education (200 each).
Labour has previously released data identifying which universities may stand to lose the most places under the new system, suggesting that members of the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities could lose between 1,500 and 3,200 places in total.