The Independent Commission on Fees was set up in January to assess the impact on young people of raising maximum tuition fees to £9,000 a year.
Led by Will Hutton, former editor of The Observer, the commission’s members include the philanthropist Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, Stephen Machin, professor of economics at University College London, and Libby Purves, the broadcaster and Times columnist.
In its first report, the commission found that given the increases in higher education applications in recent years, one in 20 people who would have been expected to apply to university in 2012 did not.
This equates to about 15,000 “missing” young applicants whose decision not to apply may have been influenced by fee levels, the commission says.
“Although it is too early to draw any firm conclusions, this study provides initial evidence that increased fees have an impact on application behaviour,” said Mr Hutton, who is also principal of Hertford College, Oxford.
“There is a clear drop in application numbers from English students when compared [with] their counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“On a positive note we are pleased to see that, at this stage, there has been no relative drop-off in applicants from less advantaged neighbourhoods.”
The commission compares this year’s applicant numbers with those in 2010 when higher fees had yet to be announced.
It says that the number of applicants in England dropped by 8.8 per cent between 2010 and 2012 – about 37,000 people.
Once older students and demographic changes are considered, it adds, the number of younger applicants is down by about 15,000.
Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said: “We have always said it would be a tragedy if any young person were put off applying to or going to university because of financial concerns.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “The government’s fees policy has been a disaster from the start and is having a serious impact on the choices young people make.
“Young people not applying for university have few other opportunities with levels of high unemployment and the difficulty securing other forms of education or training.”
But Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents 24 large research-intensive universities, said: “Contrary to what some doomsayers predicted, [the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service] has found that overall applications from 18-year-olds have fallen by just 2.6 percentage points – and that is even though there are fewer 18-year-olds in the UK this year and there was a peak in applications last year as fewer people chose to take gap years.”
Meanwhile, the Million+ group of new universities criticised the commission for concentrating on younger students.
Pam Tatlow, its chief executive, said: “One in three undergraduates start university when they are over 21 and applications from older students have fallen by over 11 per cent. The fees commission has made a serious error by failing to assess the impact of the new system on students who want to enter higher education later in life.”