Data released today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show the picture as of 21 November.
The organisation said that application deadlines for the majority of universities and courses do not fall until 15 January and that “application patterns this far ahead of that date are historically unreliable indicators of the eventual year-on-year change”.
The latest figures show that as of 21 November, there had been 133,357 applications from UK-domiciled students for UK universities, down from 157,116 at the equivalent point for 2011 entry.
The overall number of UK, other European Union and non-EU applicants fell by 12.9 per cent.
But there were rises in the number of students applying from non-EU countries, with applications from Hong Kong, for example, up by 31.8 per cent.
Ucas said that for those universities and courses where a 15 October deadline applied (the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, plus all medicine, dentistry, veterinary science and medicine courses), the reduction in applicants was 0.8 per cent.
The number of UK-domiciled 18 year old applicants to courses where this 15 October deadline applied rose by 1.1 per cent.
Ucas said these figures gave a more “meaningful” picture.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “We still have to hold back before coming to conclusions about these figures.
“There are still seven weeks left for people to get their applications in before the 15 January Ucas deadline.
“It’s worth noting that applicant numbers are currently down, not only in England, but also in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which do not have the same fees system.
“And last year [for 2011 entry], for various reasons, was something of a one-off in terms of record demand.
“If we compare today's figures with the same point in 2010, the numbers are broadly similar.”
Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE, echoed the “too early to tell” line.
“There is significant evidence of increased interest in open days and visits and that applicants are taking longer to weigh up their options and choices,” he said.
“Furthermore it should be remembered that last year there were some 200,000 more applications than places and so even a 13 per cent drop does not necessarily mean a fall in the eventual number of students.”
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said: “It is too early in the applications cycle for data to reveal underlying trends - the main Ucas deadline is not until January.”
However, Shabana Mahmood, the shadow higher education minister, said today’s figures “show that the Tory-led government’s decision to treble tuition fees is continuing to put people off applying to university”.
She added: “We are seeing a 20 per cent drop in applicants aged between 25 and 39, showing that the chaotic and unfair policy to treble tuition fees is putting off those who are already in the workforce in investing in their skills and developing their careers.”