A dramatic downturn in the number of graduates hoping to start teacher training courses could see academics "scrabbling around" to fill places, recruitment experts have warned.
There is likely to be less than one application per place in some subjects this year, projections show, despite generous bursaries worth up to #163;20,000 being offered to trainees.
The latest figures also suggest that there could be just 1.2 applications per place for primary PGCE courses, raising concerns that less well qualified candidates could be offered places just to fill courses.
Education secretary Michael Gove wants universities to recruit a higher standard of teacher trainees, but academics have warned that they will struggle to do this with fewer students applying to join the profession.
The projections were calculated by John Howson, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford and managing director of DataforEducation.info. He said he expects just 0.8 applications to be made per place for physics; 0.9 for modern foreign languages; 1.1 for chemistry, geography and ICT; and 1.2 for maths.
"For primary teaching, applications this year are starting to look dangerously low," Professor Howson said. "Most universities are not getting much choice and they will be scrabbling around to fill places."
James Noble Rogers, executive director of the Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers, said the number of applications will not give universities much choice over who they recruit.
"This is a shame as it makes it difficult to increase the quality of trainees," he said. "I know universities will do all they can to fill places because they don't want them to be withdrawn in subsequent years.
"But whatever they do, they will make sure places are filled with people who will make good teachers. They won't fill courses with unsuitable candidates because recruitment and entry levels are subject to so much scrutiny."
Other subjects are set to fare better because fewer university training places are available: there are likely to be 5.9 applicants per place in drama, 4.8 in PE, 4.6 in art and 3.7 in business studies, according to Professor Howson.
Data comparing the number of teacher training applications at the beginning of this month with the same period last year show that total numbers have fallen by 13.6 per cent to 34,314.
Applications for primary PGCEs have fallen by 14.8 per cent compared with last year. Information technology has suffered the biggest fall, with applications down by more than 50 per cent.
There have been some improvements, including increases in applications for chemistry and physics courses, which are among those offering #163;20,000 bursaries.
But Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of post-1992 universities, argued that the figures suggest that the Department for Education's bursaries policy has "so far proved ineffective" overall.
Andy Jones, dean of Manchester Metropolitan University's Institute of Education, said there was always a discrepancy in application rates between different subjects.
"This is a worry at a time when the DfE wants universities to raise the standards of those coming into the profession," he said. "If we don't get a larger pool of applicants, that's difficult to achieve."
The Training and Development Agency for Schools, which is set to close in the spring and be replaced by the Teaching Agency, has just launched a new advertising campaign to raise awareness of the profession. In addition, promotional events will be held across the country in March.
The organisation has been told to concentrate on attracting the highest-quality applications rather than the "maximum number of any quality".
A spokeswoman told TES that any provider with large numbers of unfilled places "could expect to see their allocations for future years reduced".