University chiefs say there is "anxiety" over a freeze on extra places
Universities are warning that a funding shortfall will mean a freeze on extra places - damaging the ambition to widen participation in higher education.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has written to universities saying "at this stage" there will be no allocations of extra places until 2011.
The Million+ group of new universities has criticised this "wrong response".
But a spokeswoman for the universities secretary says there is no freeze - and future places have still to be decided.
John Denham's spokeswoman said the funding council letter had been misinterpreted by the universities.
It should not be taken as meaning that there would be no more extra places in these years - only that there were no further allocations being announced at present.
The Universities UK group says there is a "level of anxiety among vice-chancellors" over the prospect of such limits on expansion - with fears that there could be "serious consequences" for universities' development plans.
Last month, the Mr Denham announced a cut in grants for students in England, following an under-estimate in the number of students who would be eligible for support.
As part of the response to this £200m shortfall it was announced that the expansion in student numbers for next year - 2009-2010 - would be limited to an additional 10,000 places.
A letter sent on Tuesday by the funding council chief executive, David Eastwood, told universities that there will also be no further allocations for 2010-2011 "at this stage".
The Million+ group of universities, formerly the Coalition of Modern Universities, has attacked this as showing a "lack of imagination".
"This has to be the wrong response to the economic downturn. DIUS has clearly badly miscalculated the funding implications of the full-time student support regime and the funding council is guilty of lacking imagination," says Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and chair of Million+.
The Million+ group also claims that this year's limit on additional places will disadvantage poorer students - as they tend to apply later
"Students from fee-paying schools dominate early applications to universities while students from non-traditional backgrounds apply much later in the admissions cycle and through clearing," says a statement from Million+.
"Given that the admissions cycle for 2009 has already begun, the intervention by the funding council at this stage is bound to disadvantage non-traditional students."
Mr Denham's spokeswoman has also rejected this, saying that there is no reason that the allocation places would disadvantage any particular group.
She also reiterated the university secretary's commitment to improving access to university for people from a wider range of social backgrounds.
The Conservatives' university spokesman, David Willetts, says that such limits contradict government ambitions to widen participation so that half of young people would enter higher education.
"It is absurd to have a target for 50% participation and specifically to prohibit universities from meeting it. It is like trying to drive a car with the accelerator and brake both pressed to the floor."