University applications from UK students for courses starting in the autumn are down 8.9% on last year, according to the latest figures from the admissions service.
This will be first year group to face higher tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year. The biggest drop was in England, where applications are down 10%.
This means that about 50,000 fewer people are applying to university compared with the previous year.
Universities Minister David Willetts said the application figures were “the second highest on record” – and that tens of thousands more people were still expected to apply.
“This will still be a competitive year like any other as people continue to understand that university remains a good long term investment for their future,” said Mr Willetts.he application figures were “the second highest on record” – and that tens of thousands more people were still expected to apply.
Labour’s universities spokeswoman, Shabana Mahmood, said “the decision of the Tory-led government to treble tuition fees to £9,000 is hitting young people and their aspirations”.
These updated figures from the Ucas admissions service show the level of applications up to the end of June.
Universities in England are going to charge up to £9,000 per year from this year – while Scottish students at Scottish universities will not face any tuition fees.
The biggest fall for the 2012 intake is among the over-18 age group – for example, applications from 19 year olds and those aged between 25 and 29 are down by 12%.
Among 18-year-old school leavers, the fall has been less marked, approaching 3%.
The raising of tuition fees had been criticised as a deterrent to poorer students – but the latest figures show a mixed picture.
The biggest reduction in England is among students from the 20% most advantaged areas – although whether this means they are not going to university, or studying outside the UK, is not certain.
Applications from the most disadvantaged areas fell marginally.
But the rate of applications remain strongly tied to family income.
The 18 year olds living in the most advantaged areas are many times more likely to apply to university than their counterparts in the poorest – with all the income bands in between following this same stratification.
This social divide has remained in place throughout the decade – and appears to be continuing through this latest fee increase.
There have also been questions about how the growing differences in fees between countries within the UK will affect cross-border applications.
The latest figures show fewer English students applying to Scottish universities and fewer Scottish students applying to England – from an already low base.
Northern Ireland has had the highest proportion of students going elsewhere in the UK – but this round of applications shows a fall of 14% for applications to English universities and 15% down for Scotland.
Wales bucks this trend – with more applications to England, Northern Ireland and Scotland.
This year will see the first fall since 2006 – when a previous increase in tuition fees pushed down applications.
That proved a temporary drop – with numbers recovering the following year.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “These figures confirm that the fall in applications is far less dramatic than some were predicting for this year.”
Sally Hunt, leader of the UCU lecturers’ union, attacked “the folly of hiking up tuition fees to £9,000”.
“This government can talk all it likes about improving social mobility but how will erecting punitive financial barriers help our best and brightest get on?”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of new universities, challenged the idea that the fee system should be assessed on the basis of applications from 18 year olds going into full-time degrees.
“They now make up less than half of the student cohort and it is premature to reach any conclusions about the impact of higher fees on the background of students. This will only be known much later,” said Ms Tatlow.