The numbers of UK students applying to start degree courses this autumn has slumped by almost 9%, as tuition fees triple to up to £9,000, official figures show.
Just over 50,000 fewer applicants have applied for university compared with the same point last year - a drop of 8.9%, according to new Ucas statistics.
In England, the numbers applying slumped by 10%, a bigger fall than in Wales (2.9%), Scotland (2.1%) and Northern Ireland (4.5%).
Among 18-year-olds, the age when teenagers traditionally go to university, the numbers were down by 2.6%, while applications from 19-year-olds were down 12.1% and those from 25 to 29-year-olds were down 12.2%.
There was a 10.5% drop in applications from 30 to 35-year-olds, while the numbers of people aged 40 and over was down 10.9%.
Students starting university this autumn will be the first to pay up to £9,000 a year in tuition fees, with many English universities planning to charge the maximum.
Universities minister David Willetts insisted that 2012 will still be a "competitive year" for students hoping to gain places.
But some union officials and university leaders raised concerns about the impact of the fee hike, with one warning that the drop in applications from mature students could be damaging.
The latest figures, which give the numbers of people applying before the final June 30 deadline, come as a new Ucas report reveals the impact of the new fee regime.
It found that around one in 20 English 18-year-olds - about 15,000 in total - who might have been expected to apply for university this year did not.
The situation is worse for older applicants - English students over the age of 18 were between 15% and 20% less likely to apply this year than last year, it said.
Part of the drop may be due to more people accepting places last year, Ucas suggested.
The report also reveals that young people in disadvantaged areas were still almost three times less likely to apply to university than their richer peers.
Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook said: "This in-depth analysis of the 2012 applications data shows that, although there has been a reduction in application rates where tuition fees have increased, there has not been a disproportionate effect on more disadvantaged groups.
"The 10% decline in applications to English institutions reported in regular Ucas statistics is more properly interpreted as a reduced young application rate of about 5% after correcting for falling populations. Application rates for older applicants have declined slightly more - by about 15%-20%."
Most English applicants applied to courses with fees at or near £9,000, the Ucas report found.
Those from poorer backgrounds are applying to courses that are around £200 cheaper on average than students from richer homes.
Mr Willetts said: "The proportion of English school leavers applying to university is the second highest on record and people are still applying. Last year 30,000 students applied after this point.
"Even with a small reduction in applications, this will still be a competitive year like any other as people continue to understand that university remains a good long-term investment for their future."
Shadow universities minister Shabana Mahmood said: "With UK applications down by 8.9%, it is clear that the drastic increase in fees and the increased debt burden is putting people of all ages off going to university and investing in their future. Most students will be paying off their debts most of their working lives.
"Applications from mature students - over the age of 23 - are also down by 11.5%, reflecting the worries of these potential students with often greater financial commitments and the impact of the Government's policies on them."
Professor Patrick McGhee, chairman of the university think-tank million+ and vice-chancellor of East London University, said that a university education is still one of the best ways to get a career and a job.
But he added: "The drop in applications from mature students is a real concern and will jeopardise the Government's growth and social mobility agenda if it becomes a long-term trend."
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, said the fall in applications was "far less dramatic" than some had predicted.
"If we look at the application rate of 18-year-old applicants from England, this has dropped only by a very small margin. It is reassuring that applicants are still applying in numbers and that, despite the higher fees, people still see higher education as a valuable investment."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: "These figures once again highlight the folly of hiking up tuition fees to £9,000 and making England one of the most expensive countries in the world in which to access higher education.
"This Government can talk all it likes about improving social mobility but how will erecting punitive financial barriers help our best and brightest get on?"
Today's figures also show:
* Overall applications, from home and abroad, were down 7.7%;
* The number of male applicants was down 8.6%, and for females 7.1%;
* Applications from EU students other than those from the UK fell by 12.9%, but outside the EU they rose 8.5%;
* The South West and the North East of England saw the biggest drops, down 12.1% and 11.7% respectively.
* The West Midlands saw the smallest fall in England, with applications down 7.4%.