There are, as always, exceptions to this pattern. But higher education experts believe that the university which has lost the biggest percentage of applicants this year is an example of the trend. Lampeter, down 23.5 per cent on this time last year, is situated in a little market town deep in south-west Wales, and is so remote that it doesn't even have a train station. The loss of so many applicants must be deeply worrying for a university that starts off with a low student base; it is the smallest university in the UK, with just over 1,000 students.
The big, popular northern universities - Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield - are also down on applications. They are highly thought of, but are several hours by train from the South-east. They also tend to be traditional in their subjects, running degrees in physics, chemistry and engineering - as well as conventional arts subjects - which are not the most popular with students.
"It looks as though students are less inclined to go north," says Alan Smithers, Sydney Jones professor of education at Liverpool University. "Students are tending to live within an hour or so of home, so they can nip back to their parents to wash their clothes and feed themselves up."
Most of the big civics are highly popular with students, so a fall in applications of 10 per cent is not too much of a problem, particularly if these are the ones they would have turned away anyway. As Martin Harris, Manchester's vice-chancellor, says: "We're the second or third most popular university and there's no reason to think we will have a problem filling our places.
"Obviously, if there is a reduction in people applying from one region of the UK we need to examine that. It would sadden me if there were a long-term trend for people to go to university in their region. We and other northern universities will look at ways to ensure that students in the South-east don't look only to universities in that area."
Leicester has also taken a hit. Its vice-chancellor, Dr Kenneth Edwards, says the university is trying to analyse what's going on: "In general, cities north of Watford seem to have been affected," he says. "We don't know if it's something to do with our subject mix or whether anything else is responsible. A first analysis suggests that it may be because we offer subjects that are in national decline, such as engineering.
"But it's worrying if there's something inexplicable and we're not getting our message across about Leicester. We're concerned enough to have appointed a marketing director, one of whose jobs will be to look at the university's image."
It's not only the old universities up north that have suffered. So, too, have Manchester Metropolitan and Liverpool John Moores. In the Midlands, Nottingham Trent is down by 11.02 per cent, which the university attributes to a policy of making the entry requirements harder.
Two other universities that have been hit hard are Luton and Thames Valley. Neither of them could be called geographically remote from the South-east, but both have been victims of bad publicity: Luton was placed bottom of The Sunday Times's university league table - it disputes that position - and Thames Valley was the subject of a devastating report from the Quality Assurance Agency.
A spokeswoman for Luton University says that it picks up students late in the cycle: "At the end of the day, we always meet our recruitment target. Assessing us in mid-stream doesn't provide the complete picture."
Universities that are doing well are De Montfort (up 19.8 per cent), Abertay Dundee, and Lincolnshire and Humberside. De Montfort attributes its success to the development of a campus in Leicester and to good customer relations. It boasts a user-friendly website for potential students, and plenty of programme choice.
Lincolnshire and Humberside also has a new campus, at Lincoln. While applications are up 13.9 per cent overall, those for courses at the Lincoln campus are up by 23 per cent. The vice-chancellor, Roger King, believes one of the reasons is that students are choosing to attend a university within their region - and that he is benefiting from people prepared to travel 50 miles from Nottingham, Leicester and Sheffield. "They may do Monday to Friday in a hall of residence and go home at weekends," he says.
One "old" university that is having no trouble attracting students this year is Warwick, which has a glittering academic reputation and close links with industry. Its registrar, Mike Shattock, says: "We put it down to the fact that schools now read league tables. If you look at our figures, we have increased our applications in physics, chemistry and engineering (subjects that are not popular nationally). The market is better informed than it used to be."
Another old university that is attracting students in increasing numbers is Essex, traditionally a centre for the social sciences, but now offering new courses in sports science, combined sociology and criminology, art history, psychology and computing. One of the lessons it has learnt, according to the vice-chancellor, Professor Ivor Crewe, is that by expanding its portfolio and finding niche markets it brings in more students; others are attracted when the departments concerned become more interesting, and applications to old degree programmes increase.
Next year, it may be impossible for universities to see how they're doing during the applications cycle compared with their competitors because Ucas's chief executive Tony Higgins has decided not to give them that information any longer; he's fed up with confidential information being leaked. The figures, which are released every February, are not strictly comparable from one year to another, he says. Processing days may be lost following computer crashes, staff illness or, this year, because of Ucas moving its headquarters. That means that newspaper articles can be misleading, he says.
Many in the universities - particularly in admissions and marketing - are objecting to the decision, pointing out that Ucas is funded by them and that the figures are useful, even if they're not 100 per cent accurate. According to Mike Shattock, the decision is "most unfortunate". Universities need to judge student numbers precisely: if they are over target, they get fined; if they are under, they have money clawed back.
"We need the best market information we can get," he says. "I understand Ucas's decision. But I would not be surprised if people persuade them that it needs to be changed."
The decision is expected to be reviewed at a meeting of the Ucas board on 19 March. Coventry's vice-chancellor, Mike Goldstein, who is chairman of the Ucas board, says: "It was an important point of principle that we didn't want information to get into the public domain that might be misunderstood and might affect the behaviour of applicants. But we will revisit the issue this month. If the consensus is that we should continue to publish it, and that there's no harm in its getting out, we will do that."
De Montfort +19.86
Abertay Dundee +15.63
Uni of Wales Inst Cardiff +9.34
Oxford Brookes +5.26
Robert Gordon +3.68
Royal Holloway +0.11
Sheffield Hallam -0.57
Queen Mary Westfield -3.08
University College London -3.39
Leeds Metropolitan -3.45
London Guildhall -3.71
Queen's Belfast -4.79
Glasgow Caledonian -5.30
South Bank -6.09
St Andrews -8.83
North London -8.91
Manchester Metropolitan -9.62
Liverpool John Moores -10.44
Nottingham Trent -11.02
King's College London -11.11
Central Lancashire -13.33
Uni of Wales Coll Newport -17.02
Thames Valley -19.00
Lampeter -23.58Reuse content