The proportion of school-leavers applying for a university place this year has fallen.
UK applicants aged under 21 were the only group to show a nominal increase by the December 15 deadline, according to figures released last week by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. But the 0.4 per cent increase is more than accounted for by the growth in the number of 18 to 20-year-olds. Applicants from all other age groups fell in absolute terms.
"This drop in the proportion of school-leavers applying to university reflects the sad reality of the government's new financial arrangements for higher education," said a spokesman for the National Union of Students.
"It would really concern us if this fall was in lower socio-economic groups. I think it is a valid assumption to make that it is the poorest parents who are making the decision that they cannot afford to send their children to university."
One possibility is that these students are taking a year out to earn money to support themselves at university. However the NUS said that there was no positive evidence to support this idea. "Historically the motivation for the gap year is more to do with personal development, stuff that costs rather than saves money," said the spokesman.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Employment said that the population growth in this cohort was greater for 20 year olds than for 18 and 19 year olds.
Meanwhile scientists have reacted with alarm to the big fall in the number of students applying for science places at university.
Physics applications fell 10.3 per cent, chemistry 9.2 per cent and biology 3.4 per cent by December 15, according to UCAS.
Peter Cotgreave of Save British Science said: "The most worrying thing is that biology is down when it is supposed to be a sexy, trendy science." The biosciences received a massive boost in last year's comprehensive spending review.
"We are already hearing stories from science-based industries saying that they have severe difficulties in getting good scientists to do the things that they need to do," said Dr Cotgreave. "It is hitting UK plc."
Some engineering subjects have also been hit hard. Electronic engineering applications have fallen 11.1 per cent, civil engineering 11.3 per cent and mechanical engineering 9.4 per cent.
"There is a move away from the traditional engineering subjects," said Clive Holtham, director of qualifications at the Institution of Electrical Engineers. "It means that there are fewer people for admissions tutors to chose from. We are concerned therefore that the standard of intake might well deteriorate. Wealth is not created by doctors and lawyers, it is created by engineers."