The number of students who started university courses was down by more than 15,000 this year, following the introduction of top-up fees.
The fall - the first since 1998 - means 3.7 per cent fewer students went into higher education this year as top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year came into force for the first time, figures from Ucas, the admissions service, show. The National Union of Students (NUS) said the figures were "deeply worrying". But the Government said the figures vindicated its decision to introduce top-up fees. It cited figures showing that the proportion of students from the poorest families had increased slightly over the past year.
Bill Rammell, the Higher Education minister, said: "Today's Ucas figures confirm that our opponents are being proved wrong. Although this autumn we are seeing a small decrease in university entrants, this comes on the back of a larger than usual increase in those entering last year.
"It's as we expected, and is what happened when tuition fees were first introduced in 1998. Then, there was a small reduction, after which applications continued upwards. The underlying trend is still up."
In 2005, a record number of students rushed to start university before the introduction of top-up fees. This year's decline did not wipe out 2005's massive leap in student numbers, meaning that there was still a rise of 3.7 per cent between 2004 and 2006, Ucas said.
The NUS called on the Government to rethink its "disastrous" policy. The NUS president, Gemma Tumelty, said:"Today's figures have confirmed our suspicions that top-up fees are having an effect on some students' choices, deterring some from going to university altogether. Our concern now is that what was a bad situation will get worse, particularly if the £3,000 cap on fees were to be lifted.
"In that eventuality, an education system could easily be envisaged where some students could afford the best, some would be forced to make do with the rest, and some could afford nothing at all."
Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, said: "The evidence is now undeniable; top-up fees deter people from going to university. Ministers must reconsider this mistaken policy that has such a negative impact on young people's futures."
Boris Johnson, the Tory higher education spokesman, said too few students from poorer backgrounds were getting to university. "It is disappointing that we are still not getting more students from poorer backgrounds," he said. "The richest fifth are still five times more likely to go to university than the poorest fifth. That cannot reflect the true distribution of ability."
Mature students suffered the biggest fall in numbers, down by 4.3 per cent.Reuse content