The full picture of the changing university scene after a record 11.9 per cent drop in UK university applications for next year became clear last night.
Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service showed the drop in women candidates was almost twice as high as among men.
In addition, the overall picture showed it was courses in the creative arts and public services, such as education and nursing, which were suffering the biggest drop in numbers.
It also revealed that – while the overall drop in applications was nine per cent – the fall in the UK was higher (11.9 per cent). Applications from overseas students eligible for full-cost fees of up to £20,000 a year have risen by 8.8 per cent.
University vice-chancellors and ministers were quick to stress it was too early to draw firm conclusions from the figures. However, there was a chorus of condemnation from students, lecturers' leaders and opposition MPs.
Shabana Mahmood, Labour's universities spokeswoman, said: "It is unfair many who have the ability to go to university are being put off from applying because of the debt they will face."
The figures – showing how many applications had been received nationwide for courses by the October deadline for Oxbridge entry – revealed a drop from 76,612 last year to 69,724.
However, a closer inspection revealed UK applications had fallen to 52,321 and those from the European Union – who will also be subjected to the new fees – were down by 9.3 per cent to 6,520.
Overseas applications from elsewhere increased by 8.8 per cent to 10,883.
The number of women applying dropped by 10.5 per cent while male applications fell by seven per cent. As women represent the bulk of applicants, this means 4,542 fewer women and 2,346 fewer men. Woman are more likely to apply for creative arts and public service courses – some of which suffered the heaviest decline in numbers.
There was a drop of 30.4 per cent in applications for education courses and 27.1 per cent for creative arts and design courses. There was also a 21.1 per cent drop in applications for "courses allied to medicine" – which includes nursing.
There was a 27.8 per cent reduction in applications from the over-40s. By contrast, the number of 18-year-olds applying had fallen by 2.4 per cent.
Toni Pearce, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said: "The significant reduction in applications from mature students is a warning and Government needs to quickly take their concerns on board."
However, the Universities Secretary, David Willetts, insisted: "It is too early in the applications cycle for data to reveal underlying trends – the main UCAS deadline is not until January."
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents 20 of the country's leading research institutions, said: "Students should certainly not be put off university by the new fees and funding system. If you're good enough to get in, you can afford to go."