Students are spurning new universities in favour of old, according to the latest applications data.
Some institutions saw applications fall by 10 per cent or more by the June 30 deadline. Of these, 26 were new universities or colleges of higher education, figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reveal.
Last year, only nine institutions saw applications fall by 10 per cent or more and four of them were old universities - London's Imperial College, Goldsmiths College and Royal Holloway, and Cranfield University.
This year's data show that at the other end of the scale, 31 institutions saw applications rise by 10 per cent or more. Portsmouth University was the only new university in England to see an increase in applications.
Tom Wilson, head of the universities department at lecturers' union Natfhe, thought the figures could spell bad news for the government's 50 per cent participation target.
He said: "It is surprising that applications to many new universities have fallen so much. The government's higher education strategy depends on student growth in old and new universities, and increased appeal to more non-traditional students, who are usually attracted to new universities."
The sudden drop in applications to new universities comes in the same year as the maximum number of students that each institution can recruit was dropped.
The decision by the Higher Education Funding Council for England was made after 10,000 places were left unfilled in autumn 2000.
Tony Bruce, director of policy development at Universities UK, said: "What is vital is that universities are able to maintain capacity so that they are able to respond effectively to future increases in demand."
A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "Applications to higher education are a free market. We do not take a view of which institutions students should apply to."
The largest fall in applications was at Luton University, where they were down by 26.5 per cent.
Steve Pettitt, deputy vice-chancellor, said the university anticipated the drop after a restructuring that reduced the number of undergraduate courses and development of postgraduate provision.
A 21.6 per cent slump in applications to Bradford University was blamed on media coverage of last year's riots in the city.
Other hard-hit institutions include South Bank University, which has had to submit a recovery plan to Hefce. Its applications were down by 22.1 per cent.
Applications to the University of North London were down 13.9 per cent, while those to London Guildhall University were down 10.9 per cent. The two institutions are to merge to form London Metropolitan University on Thursday.
Overall there was a large rise in the number of people applying to study in Scotland compared with more modest increases in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.