Figures from Ucas, the universities and colleges admissions service, show that the number of applications from the mainland of Europe this year have soared by 15 per cent to 26,827.
Some of the biggest rises are from countries that have just joined the EU, such as Poland, whose applications have more than doubled to 1,317.
Professor Michael Sterling, vice-chancellor of Birmingham University and chairman of the Russell Group of universities, which represents the country's top 18 research institutions, said that UK candidates would find there was more competition for places this year. Their numbers have risen by 8.2 per cent to 415,463, according to Ucas.
Professor Sterling warned that universities could face legal action for discrimination if they turned down an overseas applicant and took in a UK resident with the same qualifications.
More than 100,000 of the 499,311 applicants seeking a place this autumn are likely to end up without one, it is predicted, variously because of the increased competition, a late decision to take a gap year, the rush to get ahead of next year's top-up fees, or low A-level or Btec grades.Reuse content