Cambridge University has commissioned research to find out why it is suffering a dramatic slump in home applications for postgraduate study.
While application rates soar at other leading research universities in the UK. Cambridge's UK applications have dropped by almost a third since a peak of 2,673 in 1993. Last year, just 1,892 UK students applied, continuing a year-on-year decline since 1995.
Oxford University said there was no fall in demand for its courses from UK students. The London School of Economics, Warwick, Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds universities all reported increases in the number of home applicants, with dramatic increases in overseas applicants numbers of up to 75 per cent on last year.
Laurie Friday, secretary to Cambridge's board of graduate studies, said there were strong feelings that undergraduate debt and the poor perceptions of an academic career were discouraging further study. But she could not explain why Cambridge appeared to be declining in popularity.
Cambridge's board of graduate studies reported a decline in the number of applications from UK and EU students in all areas of postgraduate study during 2000-01, including research and taught degrees. But it said that applications as a whole remained buoyant because of increased demand from overseas students.
Home applications for MPhil degree courses, usually leading on to a PhD, have steadily fallen each year from a peak of 1,054 in 1993 to just 806 last year - a drop of almost a quarter. A generous studentships scheme failed to halt the decline.
Dr Friday said: "It is alarming that this has been a recognised trend for a number of years. It is a great shame if those who have potential to join academe are choosing not to exercise their academic options. They are lost to the system for ever."
This week, the National Postgraduate Committee published research that found that just over half of postgraduates describe their funding as "not sufficient" and face an average debt on graduation of £8,513.
An NPC survey of almost 1,000 postgraduates shows they are dogged by financial trouble. Three-quarters of respondents say they overcame financial hurdles to study, and just over half say their funding is "not sufficient", compared with only 8 per cent who say it is "more than sufficient".
The survey found the average fee for full-time courses is £3,780, and respondents have an average debt of £6,442 before starting their postgraduate studies. They expect this will rise to £8,513 by the time they complete their studies, when they will earn a starting salary of £22,000.
James Groves, general secretary of the NPC, said: "Research shows that careers either as a PhD or as an academic are not seen as attractive."
Ministers have agreed to increase PhD stipends as part of a strategy to attract more scientists to academe.