The prospect of tuition fees has helped student recruitment at some of the newest universities but hindered it at some of the oldest.
Figures out this week reveal that many post-1992 institutions have reported a growing number of applicants, bucking a UK decline of 3.4 per cent.
Applications to Bolton University rose by 50 per cent. Leeds Metropolitan University, where fees are lower than at most universities at £2,000, saw an 8.3 per cent rise in applications.
Meanwhile, more traditional universities saw their number of applicants slide by almost 18 per cent. Nottingham, Reading and Exeter reported falls of 14.2, 17.3 and 10.6 per cent respectively.
The figures, from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, show the number of applicants for next September, the first intake to pay fees of Pounds 3,000.
The statistics show geographical hot spots. Most London universities have seen growth in applications, with Imperial College London in the lead, up 8.1 per cent, and the University of East London, up 7.4 per cent.
Institutions in the East Midlands are down compared with last year.
Applications to Nottingham, Nottingham Trent and Loughborough fell by between 13.2 and 18.3 per cent. Nottingham Trent said that, despite a drop of 18.3 per cent, it was confident it would fill its places next year.
Graham Henderson, vice-chancellor of Teesside University, said his institution was the only one in the North East to see applications to degree courses rise (up 2.5 per cent). This, he said, was due in part to a "vocationally oriented profile".
But the strong demand for social work, business studies and teaching may be to the detriment of subjects such as history by topic, where applications fell 10.1 per cent, and history by period, where they fell 7.8 per cent.
Martin Daunton, president of the Royal Historical Society and chairman of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, expressed concern at the situation.
He said: "Students must not think that humanities degrees don't give them jobs. In the legal profession, for example, they are held in high esteem.
They lead to an analytical mind and the ability to present information quickly."
But the figures paint a complex picture and imply increased volatility and uncertainty in universities. While the number of applications for many vocational subjects were up, others, such as engineering and law, reported a fall.
Psychology, a subject that has been popular with students for many years, also saw a decline.
David Law, chairman of the Admissions Practitioner Group of the Academic Registrars' Council, said: "There are sharp and unusually large variations from the mean. It seems the fees regime has introduced significant volatility."
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, said he was confident there would be an upward trend in applications. "Crucially, the figures show there has been no reduction in the proportion of students from lower socioeconomic groups applying," he said.
But Kat Fletcher, president of the National Union of Students, said the figures proved that fear of debt had put off students. She said: "The drop in applications suggests top-up fees and debt is deterring potential students."
'I wanted to do something specific'
Oxford University was the "natural" choice for straight-A student Josie Scobling. At least according to her A-level teachers.
But the 19-year-old from Plymouth decided instead to accept a place at Gloucestershire University, a post-92 institution, to study for a BA in broadcast journalism.
Ms Scobling, now in her second year, said: "My teachers tried to persuade me to study English or sociology at Oxford. Those are brilliant courses, but I wanted something specific to my future career. From the age of 14 I set my heart on being a broadcast journalist. I didn't want to do any other course.
"With a vocational degree you have more chance of going straight into your chosen career. A few years ago you went to university to study something academic and then decided on your career. That is not the case now."
The three As A-level student has no regrets. "I'm loving every minute," she said.