Cuts revealed in the Budget will mean 20,000 more applicants fighting for almost 10,000 fewer places across the country, but individual departments must wait until March to know how they have fared. So far, 420,000 students have applied for 260,000 places.
In an attempt to avoid having too many students, some are waiting until they know how severe the cuts are before finalising offers. Others expect to reject large numbers of late applicants and those who narrowly miss their grades.
Students who applied just before the 15 December deadline could find they need higher A-level grades than class-mates interviewed before the cut was disclosed, the country's most senior admissions official said last night.
Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, said: 'This situation may disadvantage those students who applied on time but relatively late, because institutions may raise their offers when they hear what their targets are.
'It just goes to show what a nonsense it is to have an application system where recruitment decisions are made before institutions even know their student targets.'
Many of those affected would be mature students who applied after the deadline, he said.
Even Cambridge University, usually largely unaffected by such fluctuations, has warned its college admissions tutors that they may face cuts. A spokeswoman said that colleges had made offers before Christmas, but students who dropped grades could lose their places.
At the University of Southampton, target recruitment in the arts faculty has been reduced from 550 to 510. At the University of North London, Dr Jennie Somerville, dean of the faculty of environmental and social studies, said offers were going out but late applicants were likely to be turned away. 'It's very difficult to make even middle- range strategic decisions,' she said.
Teacher training institutions have also experienced difficulties. Some are now months behind on admissions because they did not receive details of cuts in courses for primary teachers until last week.
John Howson, acting head of education at Oxford Brooks University, said his department had suspended interviewing because of the hold-up. 'In some subjects including English we are about two months behind where we would normally be at this stage, and this has caused great inconvenience both to students and to everyone else. The whole thing has been a shambles,' he said.