The number of UK students applying to start university this autumn has slumped by nearly 9pc, official figures show.
In total, 462,507 people have applied for courses beginning in September, compared with 506,388 at this point last year - a drop of 8.7pc, according to statistics published by Ucas.
Tuition fees for English universities are due to triple to a maximum of £9,000 (€10,764) this autumn.
Overall application from all students, both home and abroad, are down by 7.4pc, the figures show,
The figures show that the number of applicants have fallen from all parts of the UK.
In England the number of applicants has dropped by 9.9pc, Northern Ireland 4pc, Scotland 1.5pc and Wales 1.9pc.
Education experts warned that the Government's plans to raise tuition fees could be having an impact on application figures.
But Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook suggested that population changes could be a factor in the fall, and said the drop in demand was larger among wealthier students than poorer ones.
And university leaders said the dip had been "far less dramatic" than had been predicted.
Ms Curnock Cook said: "There has been a headline drop of 7.4pc in applicants, with a slightly larger fall in England.
"The more detailed analysis of application rates for young people takes account of population changes. This shows a fall of just one percentage point in the application rate in England, with little change across the rest of the UK.
"Our analysis shows that decreases in demand are slightly larger in more advantaged groups than in the disadvantaged groups. Widely expressed concerns about recent changes in HE funding arrangements having a disproportionate effect on more disadvantaged groups are not borne out by these data."
Martin Lewis, of Money Saving Expert and head of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information, said: "There is no doubt that the new higher fees in England will have put some students off. More difficult is assessing how big a problem that is.
"The worst-case scenario is that it is those from non-traditional university backgrounds - wrongly panicked into feeling they can't afford fees or scared of being saddled with huge unmanageable debt.
"The best-case scenario is that this is a legitimate call from those who have investigated the cost, the value, and evaluated university is now not for them.
"I suspect it's a mix."
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice chancellors' umbrella group Universities UK, said: "While overall applicants have decreased compared with the same point last year, the dip is far less dramatic than many were initially predicting.
"And if we look at the number of 18-year-old applicants from the UK, this has dropped by only 3.6pc at a time when the overall 18-year-old population is in decline.
"We will have to look now in more detail at whether students from certain backgrounds have been deterred more than others. We will continue monitoring the impact of the new system on students and specific subjects.
"For prospective students, it's important to remember that there is still time to apply. This is only the start of the admissions process. The important thing will be looking at how many of these, and subsequent applications, turn into acceptances in the coming months."
Today's statistics are the first snapshot to be published since the main deadline for applying to university - January 15.
Would-be students who apply before this date will have the application given "equal consideration" by universities.
Today's figures also show:
- The number of male applicants is down 8.5pc, and for women it is down 6.7pc;
:: The number of applicants aged 18 has fallen 2.6pc, those aged 19 are down 12.6pc, while those aged 25 to 29 are down 11.8pc, applications from 30 to 39-year-olds are down 9.9pc and applicants aged 40 and over are down 10.5pc;
- The number of applicants from other EU countries has fallen by 11.2pc, but the total number of overseas applicants, outside the EU, has risen 13.7pc;
- The South West has seen the biggest fall in applicants - down 12.6pc, while in the North East it has fallen 11.2pc;
- The West Midlands has seen the smallest drop in applicants in England - down 7.3pc;
- By course, non-European languages and related subjects have seen the biggest fall in applicants - down 21.5pc.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of university think-tank million+ said: "The Government was always taking a risk by expecting students to take out fee loans of up to £9,000 per year to make up for cuts in public funding.
"However, the precise impact of the new system will not be known until there is an analysis of enrolments later in the year. If this shows a decline in students from lower-income backgrounds this will be a real blow to the Government's commitment to social mobility."
Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, which represents a group of leading universities, said: "It's not surprising the number of applications is lower than last year, but there are a number of reasons for that. Demographic changes mean there are fewer 18-year-olds in 2012 than in 2011 and we also know there was a peak in applications last year as fewer people chose to take gap years.
"So overall it is encouraging to see that applications from 18-year-olds, who are the largest group of potential university entrants, are down by just 2.6pc compared to last year.
"There is more of a drop in applications from mature students and we will be monitoring any enduring behavioural changes in this group, who tend to have more flexibility over when they apply for higher education."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) said: "Today's figures are very worrying and once again highlight the Government's folly in raising tuition fees to as much as £9,000 (€10,764) a year.
"Applications in England are down over 50pc more than in any other part of the UK as a result of the Government making it the most expensive country in the world in which to gain a public degree.
"We cannot afford a system that puts people off university if we are to compete in the modern world.
"Other countries are encouraging their best and brightest to get on, not putting up punitive barriers.
"This Government risks returning us to a time when money, not ability, mattered most for success."