Universities have suffered the steepest fall in applications since records began, with the total number of students seeking places this autumn plummeting by 8.7 per cent as the true impact of tuition fee increases is felt.
Last night, there were warnings that the decline would lead to course closures and redundancies at campuses across the country. An even more marked drop of 9.9 per cent was recorded in applications from students in England, where fees are rising to up to £9,000 a year.
More men than women have been discouraged from applying, with their numbers falling by 8.5 per cent to 230,342, figures from Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) showed. There are 309,731 female applicants – 6.7 per cent fewer than at this time last year.
A subject-by-subject breakdown reveals that the courses suffering the worst declines include non-European languages such as Japanese and Mandarin, which are often cited as being vital to the future of the British economy. Applications to these courses are down 21.5 per cent. Creative arts and design courses are down by more than 16 per cent and technology by 17 per cent. The only degrees to register an increase are some medicine courses, including nursing, which are up 2 per cent.
In all, there are 43,473 fewer applications for degree courses starting in autumn 2012 than there were last year.
Martin Freedman, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "We are deeply concerned that many potential students are being put off applying and their career prospects will be damaged as a result. The fall in applicants also has worrying implications for universities' finances now that ... most of their funding is due to come from students rather than the Government."
The Ucas chief executive, Mary Curnock Cook, said she was "concerned about the wide and increasing gap between the application rate of men compared to women". However, she said she was relieved that the new fees structure did not seem to have affected the number of disadvantaged students seeking to enter higher education. "Our analysis shows that decreases in demand are slightly larger in more advantaged groups than in disadvantaged groups," she said.
Twenty universities have seen a fall in applications of more than 15 per cent. The biggest drop is at the University of the Creative Arts – which has campuses in Canterbury, Epsom, Farnham, Maidstone and Rochester – where numbers are down 29 per cent. By contrast, Cambridge University has had 2 per cent more applications.
The number of overseas students seeking a place is still rising, despite curbs on immigration, with applications up 13 per cent. Britain is particularly popular with students from Hong Kong, with applications from there rising by 37 per cent.
Prospective students from EU countries, who face the same fee increases as their English peers, applied for 11 per cent fewer places. Mature students also seem to be staying away, with applications from 23-year-olds showing a 13.5 per cent decline, and from 25- to 29-year-olds falling by 11.8 per cent. Applications from 18-year-old school-leavers dropped by only 2.6 per cent.
The figures show the number of English students applying for degree courses has slumped by 9.9 per cent. Tuition fees for English students at English universities will treble to a maximum of £9,000 a year this September. In Scotland, where Scottish students do not have to pay fees, applicants are down by 1.5 per cent. In Wales, where Welsh students are subsidised, numbers are 1.9 per cent lower.
Shabana Mahmood, the shadow Minister for Higher Education, said: "It is clear the drastic increase in fees and the debt burden is putting people of all ages off going to university."
With some degree subjects hit by a drop in applications of more than 20 per cent, the new higher education landscape could well threaten the viability of courses, especially in arts and humanities subjects which have lost their funding under government cutbacks. The overall number of applications – 540,073 – is already 65,000 higher than the number of places on offer this autumn. Last year, Ucas received 100,000 applications after the January deadline had expired.
Many students appear to be casting their eyes further afield to secure a good-value education. Maastricht University in the Netherlands said yesterday that it had 152 per cent more applications from British students than it did at this time last year. The university, which charges £1,500 a year and teaches all courses in English, expects about 600 young people from the UK to apply this year.
Professor Michael Farthing, the vice-chancellor of Sussex University, said: "The cuts to funding gave universities little option other than to increase fees and, as a result, many prospective students have obviously been wary of applying this year."
The Universities minister, David Willetts, insisted: "Even with a small reduction in applications, this will still be a competitive year like any other."