Universities are facing a huge surge in applications for places, says the head of one of them - with increases of up to 38% reported.
Last summer saw tens of thousands of applicants being turned away - and financial pressures on universities could make this year even tougher.
Higher education leader Les Ebdon says new universities are seeing increases in excess of 20%.
"It's going to be difficult - it could be another chaotic summer," he says.
An increase of 10% would mean more than 60,000 extra people chasing places.
Last summer about 150,000 people who applied did not get a place on a course.
"We want to warn that this will be worse than last year," says Professor Ebdon, who is chair of the new universities group, Million+.
"People need to be able to debate this before the general election."
Universities are still receiving applications - with the deadline extended because of the bad weather - and final figures will not be known until next month.
But there are already indications of a sharp spike in applications, which threatens to leave tens of thousands of disappointed applicants.
There are fears that a number of different factors are adding to the pressure on places this year.
Universities are facing deepening financial concerns - and there will be tough limits on creating extra places to meet the increased demand.
It is also believed that many applicants who failed to get a place in the summer will be applying again, swelling the numbers already applying from this year's school leavers.
Uncertainty about the jobs market has also encouraged more people to think about going to university rather than looking for work.
Prof Ebdon says there is a particular surge in applications for new universities.
His own university, Bedfordshire, has seen a massive 38% annual increase - and he says across the new universities he expects an increase above 20%.
Reflecting this trend Sheffield Hallam University says it is facing a 23% year-on-year increase.
The university says that the economic climate is a factor with demand for courses which are linked to industry.
Across the university sector as a whole, Prof Ebdon is confident there will be increases of 10% to 12%.
This would be in keeping with a 12% increase already reported by admissions services for a small number of courses with early deadlines.
Last year more than 630,000 people applied for places - so increases in the region of 10% and 20% could add 60,000 to 120,000 more to those seeking places.
About 480,000 applicants were successful in gaining places last year.
The prospect that more people will once again fail to find a place is an "absolute tragedy," says Prof Ebdon, "when so much has been done to encourage wider participation".
"Next year there will be more students going to university than at any time in our history with 40,000 more funded places in the system than there were in 2007-08," said a spokesperson for the Business, Innovation and Skills department.
"But the number of places in any year has always been limited and getting a place at university has always been, and should be, a competitive process.
"Growth in student numbers must be done in a sustainable way that protects the quality of the student experience and allows for financial support while at university."