Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) show applications for deferred entry were down by 16 per cent this year.
Last year, 20,000 people formally applied for a deferred place, although every year many more students end up taking a year off.
Student leaders said the fall was due to uncertainty over gap years, after fears of a tuition-fee "gap trap" prompted a government U-turn last year. They speculated that many students had left decisions on deferred entry until after they receive their A-level results tomorrow.
The fall confounds predictions that government plans to impose means- tested tuition fees of up to pounds 1,000 would prompt a rise in the numbers of students taking a year off before university, to allow them to raise money to fund fees and living expenses.
Students planning gap years were thrown into turmoil last year after the Government announced it would charge tuition fees and abolish maintenance grants from this October. Ministers were forced to waive fees for students who arranged a deferred place last August after a storm of protest.
A spokeswoman for the National Union of Students said the long-term future of gap-year activities was in doubt. "We do think the traditional gap year abroad will become less of a reality," she said. "People will really want to be saving money to take with them to university."
Commercial gap-year operators, however, reported business as healthy as ever, with some even recording an increase in applications.
A spokeswoman for World Challenge Expeditions, which offers paid and voluntary work overseas, said demand had increased by 70 per cent last year, and applications for next year were already up by 40 per cent.
Tuition fees should be waived for university courses leading to careers in public service, lecturers said yesterday. The Association of University Teachers said people hoping to become teachers, probation officers, doctors or physiotherapists faced a "poverty trap" because of fee and student loan repayments. Wealthy companies would simply deprive the public sector of the best graduates by offering lucrative "golden hellos".Reuse content