Nearly three in 10 potential students were denied a place at university this year, statistics have revealed.
More than 200,000 people missed out as universities faced a record number of applicants and a freeze on places at English universities.
Data published by the universities admissions service Ucas showed that a record 688,310 people applied to start degree courses this autumn. But only 479,057 were accepted, meaning that around 209,000 missed out.
Of these, 188,697 (27.4%) were eligible for clearing but have had no offers, not met the grades, or applied too late - effectively missing out on a place. Last year this figure was 22%. A further 2,475 applicants this year are still waiting for a decision, while 18,081 have withdrawn their application.
Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook warned there could be unprecedented competition next year as teenagers sought to avoid the expected introduction of higher tuition fees in 2012. She told The Times earlier this week: "As soon as there's uncertainty, you will get a massive influx of applications."
The record rise in applications has been fuelled by the recession, with many workers choosing to return to education. But at the same time, English universities have faced a cap on the numbers of UK and EU students they accept, with the prospect of a £3,700 fine for each student they over-recruit.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of university think tank million+, said: "It is entirely predictable that there will be a big increase in applications to university next year as would-be students scramble to secure places before a different fee and funding regime is introduced. This is exactly what happened in 2005. The difference is that in 2005, there was no cap on student numbers and there were not 190,000 disappointed applicants who had missed out on places the preceding year."
Universities Minister David Willetts said: "Going to university has always been a competitive process so not all those who apply for a place are accepted. There are other routes into a successful career. The Government has invested in 50,000 additional apprenticeships, and we can help with getting a job or starting a business."
Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), said: "At a time when universities need public funding and radical reform to meet increasing demand from applicants, Lord Browne has opted to focus on ramping up the costs to students to fill a black hole created by self-defeating cuts."