With applications for next year down by between 7 and 8 per cent, Judith Judd and Lucy Ward explain how the Government decision to charge tuition fees is influencing would-be students.
Around 400,000 leaflets to be sent out to schools and colleges this weekend will tell sixth formers that a university education is still a good buy despite the introduction of pounds 1,000 a year tuition fees from next September.
The vice-chancellors' committee and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), which processes the applications, say that they are sending out the leaflets to clear up any misunderstandings about the effect of government policy.
With less than two weeks to go before the official closing date for applications, they want to emphasise that students will still have a good chance of a place even if they apply after the deadline. Last year, around 111,000 students who applied after the deadline gained places.
Confidential figures which went out to universities at the end of last week show that the number of applications from home and EU students processed by Ucas was down by around 10 per cent - from 163,000 to 148,000 compared with the same period last year.
Worst hit are the new universities, with applications at some down by as much as a quarter, though a few are bucking the trend. The drop is said to be across the board and not confined to particular subjects.
Last Friday, applications for Manchester Metropolitan University were down by 3,214 to 12,742, and those for Northumbria University by 2,027 to 8,308. At Plymouth, applications were down by 2,590 to 8,123.
The leaders of new universities confirmed that students were hanging back from applying, and were agreed that the Government had failed to convince potential applicants over the funding changes.
Dr Geoffrey Copland, the vice-chancellor of Westminster University and chair of the 26-strong Coalition of Modern Universities, said: "There is an apprehension about what is happening in the system on the part of students and their advisers, and the message about the new funding arrangements has not really got across.
"Students who are serious about going to university are not being put off, but people who are a bit uncertain are hedging their bets at the moment."
At the University of East London, applications so far are marginally down on last year, though the picture so far has been "volatile".
The vice-chancellor, Professor Frank Gould, also believed the Government had "lost the propaganda war" to opponents of fees. "There has been a lot of publicity, marches and demonstrations from the antis, and a fairly cool statement from the Government has not combated that."
He thought potential applicants would be reassured by the vice-chancellors' campaign.
Professor Peter Wheeler, pro vice-chancellor of Salford University, where applications are also down, warned that the funding changes in higher education might deter many able applicants, particularly mature students.
He said: "The decision seems in conflict with the Government's plans to increase participation from those sectors of society which hitherto have not been able to benefit from university education."
A spokeswoman for the vice-chancellors' committee said: "We hope that, as last year, people will apply after the deadline.
"We believe it is inevitable that there will be a certain amount of confusion with such a big change. We hope the leaflet will undo that and give the context of the benefits of higher education."
Tony Higgins, chief executive of Ucas, said: "We are making no statement about figures at all until after the closing date. It is too early to speculate on a single snapshot."
Some long-established universities also appear to be suffering. East Anglia's applications were down by 1,240 to 5,808 and Kent's down by 1,114 to 6,113.
The leaflets aim to expose myths about Government changes to fees and grants - for example, "if I go to university I shall be up to my neck in debt for years".
The universities point out that male graduates earn 30 per cent more and women graduates 40 per cent more than those who go straight from the sixth form into a job.
David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, wrote to potential applicants a month ago assuring them that the new arrangements would ensure that they had the financial backing that they needed.
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