University applications have fallen for the first time in six years as "top-up" fees of up to £3,000 a year are introduced to universities in England.
Nearly 13,000 fewer students have applied to go to university this autumn compared to last year, according to figures released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas).
Student leaders described the fall as "extremely worrying" and called for an urgent review of the government policy on top-up fees. Ministers stressed that this year's fall followed an 8 per cent rise in applications last year.
The impact of the new fee system was laid bare in yesterday's figures, which showed the dramatic differences facing English universities and those in Scotland and Wales, which are not charging the higher fees. Applications to English universities dropped by 3.7 per cent, while those to Scottish universities rose by 1.6 per cent and Welsh universities by 0.5 per cent. The biggest fall - of 4.5 per cent - was among English students applying to English universities. But the number of English students applying to Scottish universities rose by 1.9 per cent.
A spokesman for Ucas said the new fee structure had "undoubtedly" affected students' choices.
Bill Rammell, the higher education minister, said: "I have always said that we would see a small fall in applications this year on the back of the much larger than usual increase last year," he said. "But applications this year are still almost 12,500 above the corresponding figure in 2004."
Kat Fletcher, the president of the National Union of Students, called for a review of top-up fees. "The drop in applications ... suggests that top-up fees and the debt they represent is deterring potential students. As a society, we could be missing out on thousands of potential doctors, teachers, scientists, engineers because the fear of debt has put them off from going to university."
Boris Johnson, the shadow higher education minister, said that there was "no cause for undue alarm". But Edward Davey, the Liberal Democrat's spokesman on education, said the figures showed that student fees were "beginning to bite".
Mr Rammell said the figures also showed students were abandoning subjects such as philosophy and history in favour of courses which are more likely to lead to lucrative careers.Asked if there was any value in taking "classic" courses, Mr Rammell said: "Of course there is. But if students are making a calculation about which degree is going to get them the best job... I see that as being no bad thing."Reuse content