The number of people applying to study on full-time undergraduate courses at UK universities has fallen by 4 per cent year-on-year, Ucas data show.
Overall, the number of people who applied to university courses by the June deadline was 649,700, down about 25,000 on last year, according to the admissions service.
The 30 June deadline is the final point at which applications can be considered before the final “clearing” stage of admissions.
It is the first decline in applications since tuition fees in England were raised to £9,000 in 2012, and comes ahead of an increase in English fees to £9,250.
The number of European Union applicants looking to study on full-time undergraduate courses stood at 49,250 by Ucas’ June deadline, down 5 per cent compared with last year.
In total, there were 529,620 UK applicants (a fall of 4 per cent), and 70,830 from overseas countries outside the EU (an increase of 2 per cent).
The June data also confirmed that nursing courses have been hit by a huge downturn in applicants – overall there were 53,010 applicants to nursing courses, down 19 per cent compared with last year – something that has been attributed to the ending of bursaries in England for such students.
There was also a marked difference across age ranges. There were about 321,950 18-year-old applicants, an increase of 1,510 on last year, and in England there was a record application rate for younger people of 37.9 per cent.
However, the number of applicants at the June deadline who were aged 19 or older fell by 27,180 on last year, while in England there were 18 per cent fewer applicants aged 25 or over.
Commenting on the release of the data, Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of modern universities, said that “yet again” figures had shown that “the current fees and funding system is not working for those who want to study later in life”.
There was “no doubt that the government’s approach to Brexit is damaging and is creating huge uncertainties, both for EU students and UK universities”, Ms Tatlow added.
University Alliance chief executive Maddalaine Ansell said that the statistics showed “the continuation of some worrying trends”, while Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that the figures were “bad news and should serve as a timely reminder that our current system of funding is in need of urgent reform”.
It is lower-tariff universities – those admitting students with the lowest entry grades – that have been hit hardest by the downturn in applications from the UK and other parts of the EU.
Overall, there were 9 per cent fewer applications to such institutions, while medium-tariff universities saw a fall of 4 per cent and higher-tariff institutions actually had an increase of 1 per cent overall. For applicants from the EU, universities of all tariff levels saw a decrease, although again it was more pronounced for lower-tariff institutions (10 per cent down) than for higher-tariff providers (4 per cent).