Data released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service today show 283,680 domestic students had applied to university by 19 December – down 23,228 on last year’s figure of 306,908.
Once a 13 per cent rise in non-European Union applicants is taken into account, the overall drop in applicants to UK universities stands at 6.4 per cent.
The decline is significantly smaller than previous interim figures have suggested.
In October, the overall dip was 9 per cent, while November’s figures were 12.9 per cent down on the cycle for 2011 entry.
It follows concerns that tuition fees of up to £9,000 from 2012 could deter students from applying to university.
The statistics may suggest that students are applying later than in previous years, with 106,496 students applying in December alone, a 0.4 per cent rise on last year’s figure.
Mary Curnock Cook, Ucas chief executive, said: “Evidence of a late surge as the 15 January deadline approaches is now emerging.
“Applicants are taking longer to research their choices but the applications flow has speeded up, as these statistics show.
“It remains too early to make predictions about the final year-on-year figures but we will be able to get a clearer picture after the deadline has passed.”
However, the figures are the most accurate indication of 2012 student numbers.
At the same stage in the last cycle, nearly half of all students who eventually applied to Ucas had submitted their applications.
The latest statistics also indicate older students may be being put off by higher fees.
There were double digit falls in applicant numbers for nearly all age brackets from 19 and above, while the slump in applicants aged 18 was just 1.8 per cent.
There was an 8.3 per cent fall in English students, 5.7 per cent from Northern Ireland, while the fall among Scottish and Welsh applicants was just 0.8 per cent and 1.9 per cent respectively.
Double digit falls were registered to courses in architecture, social sciences and European languages, but engineering fell by only 1.8 per cent and there were small rises in applicants to physical sciences degrees.