Fears that the number of mature students could be particularly hard hit by the trebling of the tuition-fee cap have been exacerbated by the first set of application data for university entry in 2012-13.
Statistics published this week by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show that there were 69,724 applicants for all UK courses by 15 October, compared with 76,612 at the same point last year.
This is a 9 per cent fall, but when an 8.8 per cent increase in applicants from outside the European Union is factored out, the decline is 11.9 per cent. However, more detailed figures show that the number of applicants aged 18 or under dropped by just 2.2 per cent, while older applicant numbers fell far more sharply.
The number of applicants aged 40 or over dropped by .8 per cent, those 30 to 39 fell by 22.7 per cent and those aged 25 to 29 declined by 21.4 per cent.
Overall, applications from students aged 19 or over fell by 19.2 per cent.
Toni Pearce, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said this "significant reduction" in applications from mature students was "a warning sign".
The figures also indicate which subjects could be hardest hit under the new fee regime: applications to architecture courses fell by 17.1 per cent, computer sciences declined by 10.5 per cent and European languages dropped by 10.1 per cent.
However, the figures came with a health warning, as Ucas advised that it was too early to extrapolate the figures for the application process as a whole, which ends in January.
The warning was echoed by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, and by Universities UK.
In previous years, the Ucas statistics published in October have indicated general trends in application levels, but not the actual rates.
For example, a 4.2 per cent increase in applicants by last October's deadline was followed by a 1.4 per cent increase for 2011-12 entry. For 2010-11, the October figures demonstrated an increase of 11.6 per cent, but the final data showed a 22.6 per cent rise.
The most concrete of the figures released by Ucas this week were those for applications to Oxbridge plus medicine, dentistry and veterinary science courses, which all had deadlines of 15 October. In these final statistics, the number of students vying for places was down just 0.8 per cent on last year.
Responding to warnings from critics of coalition policy that the wider Ucas figures were a sign of impending disaster, Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of UUK, said the October data were "unreliable indicators" of final numbers, adding: "It may also be that students are taking longer this year to consider their options."
The publication of the data coincided with the launch by Million+ and the NUS of a study into whether mature students get enough support from universities.
Geoff Layer, vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, said changes in funding meant that "there has never been a better time to make sure we are creating the right chances for older students and offering them the best support".