Nearly 5,500 English school leavers are estimated to be turning their backs on university this year because of the fear of debt and the threat of top-up fees.
The analysis of university application statistics by the Liberal Democrats also shows a higher percentage of schoolleavers applying to universities in Scotland, where there are no top-up fees.
English students' apparent rejection of university comes as A-level results out this Thursday are expected to show a rise in the overall pass rate and the number of entrants getting A-grade passes for the 21st year in succession.
The results also coincide with moves by a senior government adviser for a shake-up of university admissions, allowing teenagers to apply after they have their results, rather than before. Professor Steven Schwarz, who is heading a government investigation into admissions procedures, believes the change would give students from deprived homes more confidence to apply. The Government will deliver its verdict on that this autumn.
But an analysis obtained by The Independent highlights the need for action to improve participation. It shows university applications from students in England this year have failed to keep pace with a population increase in their age group. The number of 18- to 20-year-olds rose by nearly 60,000 last year.
In Scotland, where students do not pay up-front tuition fees, applications increased faster than the growth in population, the study by the Liberal Democrats shows. Between 2002 and 2003, the number of those aged 18 to 20 in England was predicted to rise by 3.2 per cent by the Government Actuarial Department, to 1.842 million. But the number of English university applicants in this age range rose by only half that amount, 1.6 per cent.
In Scotland, the increase in potential students was expected to be 2.1 per cent, but the rise in applicants was 5.7 per cent.
This left 5,437 English applicants who were "missing" from this year's process, David Rendel, the Liberal Democrat higher education spokesman, said. "The research shows young people are being put off applying for university places by tuition fees and the threat of top-up fees. Now we have clear proof that the proportion of school leavers applying for university has gone down in England, but is rising in Scotland where tuition fees have been abolished," he said.
"These figures suggest the Government will not be able to hit their participation target, unless they follow Scotland's example and abolish all fees for tuition throughout the UK."
The Government has set a target to get 50 per cent of all those aged 18 to 30 into higher education by 2010, and plans to allow universities to charge top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year from 2006. Ministers are planning to abolish up-front fees.
But a spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "It is not true that almost 5,500 fewer 18- to 20-year-olds choose to go to university. The truth is that 3,782 more English under-21s have applied this year compared to last."
Kathleen Tattersall, director general of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, said this year's A-level results would show students using the new AS/A2 system to get higher passes.Reuse content