Almost 48,000 fewer students from England applied to university by 30 June – 430,775 in total – compared with the number who applied by the same date last year, figures published by Ucas show.
The total number of UK applicants fell by 8.9 per cent – down by 50,339 to 515,663 applicants.
The biggest downturn was among older age groups – 11.5 per cent fewer over-23s applied to university for 2012 entry, when undergraduate tuition fees will rise to a maximum of £9,000 a year.
The decline in applications by younger students was less dramatic – just 2.6 per cent fewer 18-year-olds applied to university compared with the previous year.
Application numbers dipped by only 2.1 per cent in Scotland, where Scottish-born students do not pay tuition fees. The number of applications also slipped in Wales, by 2.9 per cent, and in Northern Ireland, by 4.5 per cent.
“The proportion of English school-leavers applying to university is the second highest on record and people are still applying,” said David Willetts, the universities and science minister.
“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 for their future.”
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said the fall in applications was “far less dramatic than some were predicting”.
“If we look at the application rate of 18-year-old applicants from England, this has dropped by only a very small margin,” she said.
“It is reassuring that applicants are still applying in numbers and that, despite the higher fees, people still see higher education as a valuable investment.”
But Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s shadow minister for higher education, said the “unfair, unnecessary and unsustainable” decision to treble tuition fees was “hitting young people and their aspirations”.
“With UK applications down by 8.9 per cent, it is clear that the drastic increase in fees and the increased debt burden is putting people of all ages off going to university and investing in their future.
“Most students will be paying off their debts most of their working lives.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “This government can talk all it likes about improving social mobility, but how will erecting punitive financial barriers help our best and brightest get on?”
Meanwhile, Patrick McGhee, vice-chancellor of the University of East London and chair of Million+, which represents many post-1992 universities, said: “The drop in applications from mature students is a real concern and will jeopardise the government’s growth and social mobility agenda if it becomes a long-term trend.”