The news raised speculation that the Government's decision to charge tuition fees of pounds 1,000 a year from next autumn may be putting off some potential applicants.
Part of the explanation for the fall may be the extra 23,000 people who entered university this term, some of whom might have waited until next year if tuition fees had not been introduced.
For three of the last four years, applications at this stage have been well ahead of this year's figure of 39,369, released by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). Last year they were 44,200.
The first deadline for applications - for those applying to Oxbridge - was yesterday but the total also includes people applying for medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine and some students who apply early because they want to study popular subjects at popular universities. Around 22,000 people each year try for Oxbridge.
Final applications do not have to be in until 15 December but Brian Roper, vice-chancellor of the University of North London, said, said that the figures suggested that his forecast that there would be between 40,000 and 50,000 fewer applications because of fees might prove an underestimate.
"Bear in mind that those who have applied so far are the articulate, well-off middle-class. If there is a deterrent effect there is a pretty strong indication that it will work its way through."
Oxford and Cambridge said that they would not have final figures for several days but that there was no indication that their applications had fallen this year.
Professor Gillian Salter, vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University, said it was early days.
"In view of all the uncertainties, any potential student would wait until the last minute," she said.Reuse content