A LAST-MINUTE deluge of applications this week failed to halt a fall of nearly 6 per cent in the number applying to study at university.
Compared with last year, nearly 21,000 fewer people have applied to begin courses at United Kingdom universities in 1998/99 - the first year that students will be charged a tuition fee.
Early analysis of the figures suggests that the number of overseas and European Union applicants has risen, which makes the fall in home applicants even steeper.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service had received applications from 326,220 candidates by Monday's deadline.
This compares with 347,037 by the same time last year and with 340,711 in the previous year.
A snapshot of processed applications three days before the deadline showed that the number of overseas applicants had increased from 11,163 in 1996 to 11,249.
Applicants from the European Union, who will also have to pay fees but may have heard less about them, had risen still more sharply: from 4,404 to 5,507.
Tony Higgins, UCAS chief executive, said he had received 53,000 applications - 16 per cent of the total - in the last four days before the deadline.
He said that the unprecedented 11th-hour rush may be linked to the leaflet that was sent to students by UCAS, the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals and the Standing Conference of Principals last week. It reminded them it was not too late to apply and it stressed the financial benefits of a university education.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the CVCP, said: "The fall in applications should be seen in the context of the 26,000 extra students admitted in 1997." Last year, a fifth of all applications were received after the December deadline. She said that she was confident that people still recognised the benefits of higher education.
Answering a Commons question last week, education minister Kim Howells described UCAS figures as "extremely volatile". He predicted that any drop in numbers trend would be temporary.