More than 50,000 prospective students have been put off applying to university this autumn as tuition fees treble to up to £9,000 a year.
The drop was most marked among English applicants, who are the only group who have to pay top fees whichever part of the UK they choose to study in. Overall the decline in applications from last year was 7.7 per cent, or 51,709 fewer people, official figures from Ucas showed.
The numbers of mature students (over the age of 24) applying for a place slumped by more that 11 per cent, prompting university leaders to warn of "real concern" over attempts to promote social mobility.
Martin Freedman, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the figures had "blown out of the water the Government's argument that trebling tuition fees would have little effect on the number of students applying to university".
But Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, said the fall was "far less dramatic" than some had feared. It pointed out that there would still be far more applicants than places available.
The figures represent the final deadline for applying through the Ucas system, but late-comers can still go through clearing after receiving their A-level results.
Among 18-year-olds, the decline was only 2.6 per cent (6,997) when compared to last year's figure.