Student demand for university places is almost static, jeopardising government expansion plans.
Figures released this week by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show a 0.8 per cent rise in the number of people who had applied by March 24, across the UK compared with a year ago. This equates to just 2,880 more people. The figure includes a 1.3 per cent increase in mature applicants.
Between 2000-01 and 2001-02 universities were expected to fill an additional 11,000 full-time places at degree level and below. The Higher Education Funding Council for England awarded additional funded places based on this estimate, but many universities have failed to fill quotas. They now face the spectre of a clawback of teaching funds again next year.
The applications figures hint at potentially serious problems for expansion. In 1998, the government set a target of an extra 100,000 people in full and part-time higher education by 2002.
There is more bad news, because the marginal growth in applications is offset by an increase in 17 to 21-year-olds - some 85 per cent of British applicants through Ucas fall into this age range. There are estimated to be 3,900 more people in this age group this year. The rate of increase in participation has stalled.
Prime minister Tony Blair is keen that by 2010 half the population should have benefited from higher education by the age of 30.
Hardest hit by sagging demand are London-based institutions - suggesting students are put off by the cost of living in the capital. Other regions are enjoying better fortune. Scotland, in particular, is enjoying a boom. Scottish students do not have to pay upfront tuition fees and, from 2001, can apply for means-tested grants.
Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone said: "These figures show that the demand for higher education is rising. They suggest that we could see the highest ever number of accepted applicants this year.
"I am particularly pleased by the 1.3 per cent increase in mature student applications. We have introduced a considerable amount of support for these students, including childcare grants and money for travel and equipment."
But applications have plummeted by more than 10 per cent at 16 institutions, including the University of Glamorgan; Royal Holloway, London; Goldsmiths College, London; Imperial College, London; London Guildhall University; the University of Sunderland; the University of North London; the University of the West of England; and the University of East London.
An Imperial College spokesman said: "We have made about the same number of offers as last year. We don't know how many will be accepted, but we are conducting a survey of those who reject us. There is also a smaller pool of potential students who have the right A-level grades."
Deian Hopkins, vice-provost of London Guildhall University, said: "I wouldn't want to extrapolate from the Ucas data as a lot can change during the year. The relationship between applications and admissions is not clear."
Both Imperial College and London Guildhall University are already facing clawback of their teaching grants for next year.
Of all London-based institutions, just one - St George's Hospital Medical School - had more applications this year than last.
At the other end of the scale, the University of St Andrews has received almost 50 per cent more applications this year, following the news that Prince William will study there. Bath Spa University College recorded a similar rise.
The Ucas data reveal that, while numbers applying from outside the European Union are up 7.6 per cent, applications from outside the UK are down 14 per cent over all. The government set British higher education the target of attracting an extra 50,000 overseas students between 1999 and 2005.
Twice as many Chinese students applied this year and China is poised to become Britain's biggest overseas customer. Only the Republic of Ireland and Greece had more students applying to British institutions, though fewer than in previous years.