Data released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service reveal the number of UK applicants dropped from 506,488 to 462,507 – a decrease of 43,881 – as maximum tuition fees are trebled this autumn to £9,000.
Applications from English students fell even more sharply, decreasing by 9.9 per cent from 426,208 applicants in the 2011 cycle to 384,170 this year – a drop of 42,038.
The number of Scottish applicants, who will not pay fees if they study in Scotland, fell by just 1.5 per cent – down from 39,761 last year to 39,109 for 2012 entry.
Applicants from Northern Ireland fell by 4.4 per cent, while the fall was just 1.9 per cent for Welsh students.
Overall, the total number of applicants to UK universities by the final Ucas deadline of 15 January was 7.4 per cent – down from 583,546 in the 2011 cycle to 540,073.
There was a 13.7 per cent rise in applicants from non-EU countries, while EU applicants fell by 11.2 per cent.
Nicola Dandridge, Universities UK chief executive, said: “While overall applicants have decreased compared with the same point last year, the dip is far less dramatic than many were initially predicting.
“And if we look at the number of 18-year-old applicants from the UK, this has dropped by only 3.6 per cent at a time when the overall 18-year-old population is in decline.
“We will have to look now in more detail at whether students from certain backgrounds have been deterred more than others.
“We will continue monitoring the impact of the new system on students and specific subjects.
“For prospective students, it’s important to remember that there is still time to apply.”
Michael Farthing, vice-chancellor of University of Sussex and chairman of the 1994 Group of small research-intensive universities said: “The government has to act to make sure that this year’s fall in applications is not repeated.
“As an absolute priority we need to see evidence of a long term plan to open up places for bright students beyond the AAB category.”
Martin Lewis, head of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information, said: “There is no doubt that the new higher fees in England will have put some students off.
“More difficult is assessing how big a problem that is. The worst case scenario is that it is those from non-traditional university backgrounds – wrongly panicked into feeling they can’t afford fees or scared of being saddled with huge unmanageable debt.
“The best case scenario is that this is a legitimate call from those who have investigated the cost, the value, and evaluated university is now not for them. I suspect it’s a mix.”
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said: “The proportion of English school leavers applying to university today is greater than ever before, barring last year.
“Even with a small reduction in applications, this will still be a competitive year like any other as people continue to understand that university remains a good long-term investment in your future.
“And it is still not too late to apply, last year over 100,000 students applied after the January deadline.
Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook said the demographic decline in the number of 18-year-olds this year should also be taken into account.
"The more detailed analysis of application rates for young people … shows a fall of just one percentage point in the application rate in England, with little change across the rest of the UK.”
Fears over the impact of higher fees on students from poorer families were not borne out by the data, she added.
"Our analysis shows that decreases in demand are slightly larger in more advantaged groups than in the disadvantaged groups”, she said.
"The indications are that demand for higher education will continue to outstrip the number of places available in 2012.
“Applications are already 50,000 ahead of the number of acceptances in 2011.”