With just a weekend to go to the deadline for applications to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, numbers are understood to be down by about 8 per cent.
The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and UCAS have sent out 400,000 pamphlets to all potential students giving positive messages about higher education to try to counter fears about the Pounds 1,000 means-tested tuition fee and the loss of grants..
UCAS deputy chief executive Anthony McClaran said it was too early to say whether the spectre of fees had deterred potential students. He said technical problems at UCAS had made day-by-day comparisons impossible.
A rise in student numbers this year because of the rush to avoid tuition charges means spending per student at English universities for 1997/98 is now less than planned for under the previous government.
But the Higher Education Funding Council for England insists it will still impose penalties on over-recruitment, making no allowances for possible under-recruitment next year.
The council has advised institutions that the expected 4.2 per cent funding cuts planned for 1999/ 2000 are unlikely to take place, although the true figure will not be clear until after the government's comprehensive spending review.
HEFCE is also discussing with the Department for Education and Employment details of adjustments to grant payments, prompted by the introduction of tuition fees.
Fees are now paid each term by local education authorities in three bands ranging from Pounds 750 for non-lab-based subjects to Pounds 2,800 for clinical studies. This will be reduced to a flat Pounds 1,000 fee for new and existing students, paid in February, with the balance paid by HEFCE as grant.
HEFCE is keen to ensure the government has made enough allowance for slow fee payments by LEAs and students in determining how this grant is paid. Finance director Ian Lewis said: "We want to ensure institutions do not have cashflow problems."
The CVCP wants to enforce a compact on the government in return for the introduction of tuition fees. It is campaigning on five key issues, which it wants resolved by next summer, when the government will announce three-year spending plans after the spending review. The issues are: * a commitment from the government that cuts for 1999/2000 will not exceed the 1 per cent demanded for 1998/99. Current plans put the cuts at 4.2 per cent, but advice from HEFCE chief executive Brian Fender to plan for a steady financial state in future years indicates that this will change,
* an assurance that rises in student numbers will be supported by extra resources
* more money to meet university infrastructure costs
* a commitment from the government of an extra Pounds 110 million to the research councils
* Pounds 25 million for a new arts and humanities research council.
Martin Harris, CVCP chairman, said: "The government's commitment to universities will be judged according to the outcome of its spending review."
The DFEE also announced details of 1998/99 loans this week. New full-time students will be eligible for a loan of Pounds 2,735 (Pounds 3,145 in London). This is an increase of 3 per cent in line with inflation plus Pounds 1,000 to cover tuition fees.