Data released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that as of 21 November, the number of UK students applying for 2012-13 entry had fallen by 15.1 per cent compared with 2011-12 figures at the equivalent stage.
Universities UK, Ucas and David Willetts, the universities and science minister, all said that it was too early in the application cycle to reach any conclusions.
However, a senior source at a Russell Group university said that concern among the research elite focused not on overall numbers but on the proportion of state school applicants.
Speaking anonymously, he said that in his view there was "no way" that this would recover to the same levels as previous years, judging by the applications to date.
Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group of new universities and vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, said: "I think what we are seeing more explicitly is more students are applying to their local university...They perceive the cost of going has gone up substantially and see studying at home as a good way of reducing costs."
Professor Ebdon said he had been "told very strongly by the schools and colleges we work with" that more students are looking to study locally. Asked whether it would be regrettable if students were deterred from Russell Group universities further afield by the perceived cost, he said that applicants "can be very misled by the reputations of universities, not least about job prospects...when the figures don't bear that out".
But for others, any prospect of declining state school numbers at Russell Group universities will raise fears over a potential decline in social mobility.
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said it was "still too early in the application cycle to predict how many people from which school type will eventually apply to enter higher education in autumn 2012".