University applications are down by about 5 per cent on this time last year - the first substantial evidence that top-up fees are deterring would-be students.
Figures leaked to The Times Higher reveal that some institutions have seen drops of more than 10 per cent. But a patchy picture is emerging across the sector, with other universities reporting increases in the number of applications for 2006, the year that top-up fees of £3,000 a year are being introduced.
Vice-chancellors have acknowledged that a "top-up fees effect" is prompting fewer home undergraduate students to apply to university after the 8 per cent hike in the number of applications last year. Some institutions are also seeing a drop in the number of applications from international students.
Russell Group universities have been hit unexpectedly hard. At the beginning of December, Birmingham and Sheffield universities were down by about 5 per cent on last year, while Leeds University also confirmed a drop. Nottingham University is believed to be 13 per cent down, although it would not confirm this figure. But the number of applications at Southampton University has risen 8 per cent.
At Durham and London Metropolitan universities, the decline was 6 per cent and at Warwick and Leicester universities 4 per cent and 2 per cent respectively.
However, there were rises of between 2 per cent and 4 per cent at King's College London, Kingston, Sussex and York universities and the London School of Economics.
While a full breakdown of applications in Scotland and Wales is unavailable, institutional figures indicate a rise in the number of applications where no top-up fees apply. Applications are up 11 per cent at St Andrews University, and 4 per cent at Abertay, Dundee. As of December 1, Cardiff had received 20,055 applications, a 6 per cent rise on last year.
Universities UK said: "We are aware that the figures show some indication of a top-up fee, effect but it's too soon to find it worrying."
An internal UUK survey suggests a decline in the number of overseas applications. Yet the number of overseas applications to Warwick, for instance, is up 1.2 per cent. And overseas recruitment increased by 17 per cent in six of the UK's independent higher education providers, covering nearly 9,200 students.
Julian Nicholds, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said that if the findings were corroborated, they would indicate that top-up fees were a deterrent to many would-be students: "The prospect of top-up fees for courses beginning next autumn will further harm the Government's stated aim of widening participation," he said.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said applications to CMU's institutions were stable.
Virginia Isaac of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service said:
"We are expecting there to be a decline in applications because of last year's swing but the figures fluctuate daily."
About 3,000 more students deferred last year than the year before (some 31,873 in 2004), which could be a factor, she said. "While there have been glitches in embedding the electronic application system, more than 98 per cent of applications have been made electronically."
Figures published in October for medical schools and Oxbridge showed a 0.1 per cent drop in the number of applications. Sector-wide applications have hovered between 5 per cent and 6 per cent lower than last year since then.
The decline was 4.6 per cent this week, with 207,454 applications versus 216,886 in 2004.
But university insiders say that even a 6 per cent drop in applications overall does not reflect the pressure universities face in struggling to boost recruitment.
Early December figures reflect the majority of standard applications. The final deadline for admissions is January 15, 2006.