Data published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show there were 69,724 applications for all courses by 15 October compared to 76,612 applications at the same point in 2010.
The final deadline for applications is 15 January when the full impact of tuition fee hikes will be made clear.
However, the interim figures offer some early signs of which areas might be hit by the new fee regime.
Applications to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, medicine, dentistry and veterinary science, which must be received by 15 October, fell only by 0.8 per cent – down from 56,082 last year to 55,618 for 2012 entry.
For students aged 18 or under, applications for these courses actually increased by 1.1 per cent, up from 24,531 to 24,807.
However, certain subjects with later application deadlines have seen major falls in early applications, according to the 15 October figures.
Applications to architecture courses fell by 17.1 per cent, computer sciences by 10.5 per cent and European languages by 10.1 per cent.
Meanwhile, bids to study medicine and dentistry fell by only 3.1 per cent, physical sciences by 1.6 per cent and engineering by 3.1 per cent.
University leaders have warned the 15 October figures may give a misleading impression of the impact of higher fees because they represent a fraction of all applications.
Les Ebdon, chair of million+, which represents post-1992 institutions, and vice-chancellor of University of Bedfordshire, said: “It is much too early in the admissions year to draw any firm conclusions about whether or not demand will hold-up in 2012.
“However, the government cannot be complacent and should be investing much more in campaigns to ensure that prospective students understand the new loan system.”
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, also urged caution in extrapolating the early figures: “It is too early in the applications cycle for data to reveal underlying trends - the main Ucas deadline is not until January,” he said.
“Only applications for Oxbridge, medicine, veterinary science and dentistry have closed, with numbers broadly holding up on last year.”
However, others claimed the figures indicated higher fees were causing students to think twice about university.
Toni Pearce, vice president of the National Union of Students, said: “The indication is that the confusion caused by the government’s botched reforms is causing young people to at the very least hesitate before applying to university.
“The significant reduction in applications from mature students is a warning sign and government needs to quickly take their concerns on board or else risk those people falling away from education for good.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “The government’s fees policy has been a disaster from the start and it is clearly having a serious impact on the choices young people make.”
The fall in applications follows a poll of 26 universities by the Sunday Times, of which 15 said application numbers were down compared to this time last year.
City University London was hardest hit, with applications dropping 40 per cent, down from 1,492 this time last year to just 875.
Applications to Goldsmiths College fell 35 per cent and Brunel 24 per cent, according to the newspaper.
In a statement, Goldsmiths says the Sunday Times figures are misleading because they include deferred applications, which dropped by almost 50 per cent for 2012 entry, as in 2011 students had scrambled to secure places.
New applicants actually fell by 12.8 per cent this year, from 211 UK students for 2011 entry to 184 for 2012, it says.
City University London said there were tougher entry requirements this year.