Student leaders said the drop could be evidence of young people having to study nearer their homes to save money. Leading academics said the changes could be a result of the increasing popularity of vocational degrees.
The largest fall was at Thames Valley University, where applications have dropped by 19 per cent compared with last year in the wake of a damning inspection report.
Highly respected metropolitan universities are also feeling the squeeze. Applications to King's College London are down 11 per cent, and Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle all fell by between 9 and 10 per cent.
The largest rise was at De Montfort University in Leicester, where applications increased 19 per cent to 27,700.
Warwick University, which has outperformed Oxford and Cambridge in some higher education leagues, also recorded a substantial rise, with applications up 12 per cent to 26,517.
Overall figures published earlier show applications down 1.8 per cent after falls in the number of mature students and applicants from abroad.
The figures do not mean universities are in danger of under-recruiting. Under the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), students can apply to up to six courses at different universities. At most large universities four students apply for each place on a degree course.
Yesterday Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University, said the changes may be due to the rise of work-related courses such as business studies and computer programming, which increasingly top the popularity polls.
He said: "If you look at the mix of subjects there are declines in the disciplines which universities have traditionally offered: subjects such as chemistry, physics, biology, history to a certain extent, and English.
"That is the sort of subject mix you get at the old, traditional universities. The growth has been in computer science, business and administration and software engineering; the sort of mix you get in the new universities.
"There has been a lot of publicity about the supposed advantages of taking vocational degrees and that has perhaps been picked up by teenagers who think these will offer them opportunities. We know from subjects like media studies that it is not always the case.
"You would think that with students paying for their studies, they would pay close attention to what universities were offering."
Keith Hicks, communications manager at the University of the West of England, Bristol, where applications were up 7 per cent, said: "People are now looking much more for vocational courses and are concerned about how employable they will be. We are increasingly getting questions at open days about where this is going to lead them, what the first, second and third destinations of graduates are."
Dr Jacqueline Henshaw, head of undergraduate admissions at Manchester University, said the fall was common to many northern universities.
She said: "The South-east is showing the greatest drop in applications. It looks as though people are less inclined to apply to institutions more than two hours or so away.
"Parents are saying they want little Johnny to stay near home. They do not want them on their doorstep, but they do not want them too far away."
De Montfort University: Up 19 per cent
Warwick University: up 12 per cent
Southampton University: up 7.6 per cent
University of the West of England: Up 7 per cent
London School of Economics: up 4 per cent
Thames Valley University: Down 19 per cent
King's College London: Down 11 per cent
Nottingham Trent University: Down 11 per cent.
Liverpool University: Down 10.5 per cent
Manchester University: Down 10.5 per centReuse content