Demand for places at higher education institutions in England has fallen by 10%, according to UCAS, the body that manages applications to courses.
The new figures offer an insight into the impact on applications of the decision to allow universities to increase tuition fees dramatically.
There is one in 20 fewer applications from 18-year-olds than might have been expected and, significantly, up to one in five fewer applications from older applicants.
Arts universities and former polytechnics featured disproportionately among universities with a drop in applications of 15% or more. No member of the elite group of research universities, the Russell Group, were among the 25 worst affected.
Five universities suffered drops in applications of more than 20%. They were the University of the Creative Arts (29.2%), the University of Derby (25.4%), Roehampton University (25.3%), Newman University College in Birmingham (24.3%) and Goldsmiths, University of London (21%).
The new figures, published by UCAS last week, offer an insight into the impact on applications of the decision to allow universities in England to charge up to triple the rate of tuition fees from 2012-13 that apply in the current year.
Most courses applied to by English applicants have tuition fees at or near the maximum of £9,000 (US$14,000).
But in an analysis accompanying the figures, UCAS says there has been no substantial move towards or away from higher fee courses when compared with the choices made by young applicants in previous cycles.
Fears that high tuition fees would deter applications from young people from disadvantaged background are not borne out by this year’s figures.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, said that by comparing 2012 tuition fee rates to previous cycles, UCAS can show that “higher or lower fee rates appear to make little significant difference to application patterns”.
The report on applications in the UK in the 2012 admissions cycle compared to previous years is based on applications for full-time courses made via UCAS up to 24 March 2012 and takes account of demographic fluctuations in applicant populations.
The application rate of 18-year-olds from England has fallen by around 1% in 2012 (to 34%) against a recent trend of annual increases of around one percentage point. This suggests a fall of about 15,000 applicants.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the application rates of 18-year-olds for study in their own country have broadly continued their recent trends in 2012. Although tuition fees in England are set to rise sharply, in Scotland there are no fees for Scottish students while in Northern Ireland fees for Northern Irish students are £3,465, and Welsh students also pay £3,465 in Wales.
In England, there have been 15,000 fewer English applicants aged 19, and a further 15,000 fewer aged 20 and over, than if application rates had stayed the same as in 2011.
However, according to UCAS, there is no sign that applicants applied a year earlier than usual in 2011.
University and College Union General Secretary Sally Hunt, in an earlier comment, said: “It should come as little surprise that applications in England are hardest-hit as a result of the government making it the most expensive country in the world in which to gain a public degree education.
“The number of older people being deterred from applying is particularly concerning. If we want to compete with other leading economies and produce highly skilled workers we simply cannot afford to have a system that puts people off university.”
But Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the UCAS figures confirm that the fall in applications is far less dramatic than some were predicting for this year.
“If we look at the application rate of 18-year-old applicants from England, this has dropped only by a very small margin. It is reassuring that applicants are still applying in numbers and that, despite the higher fees, people still see higher education as a valuable investment.”
The report also compared application rates from advantaged and disadvantaged background.
Opponents of the decision to raise tuition fee charges have argued that a higher proportion of disadvantaged students would be put off applying by concern about being burdened with long-term loans.
The government has countered that improved measures for assisting poorer students, such as waiving of loans and scholarships, would provide greater incentives to apply to university than before.
According to UCAS, the applications from 18-year-olds from wealthier families fell by more between 2011 and 2012 than those from poorer backgrounds.
However, given that rates for poorer applicants have been growing at a higher level in recent cycles, the proportional decline is similar for applicants from both backgrounds.
There was also no sign of a fall in application by poorer young people for courses requiring high grades.
Another indicator that higher tuition fees are not making an impact is the absence of any increase in the share of applications for live-at-home study in 2012 across the UK.
Curnock Cook said: “This in-depth analysis of the 2012 applications data shows that, although there has been a reduction in application rates where tuition fees have increased, there has not been a disproportionate effect on more disadvantaged groups.
“There is still an excess of applications over places available in 2012 although this is less exaggerated than in the previous two cycles.”
Dandridge said: “The decline in application rates for 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds, it seems, has not fallen by any greater extent that those from other backgrounds.”
The following 25 universities and university colleges saw applications fall by 15% or more: University for the Creative Arts, 29.2%; University of Derby, 25.4%; Roehampton University, 25.3%, Newman University College, Birmingham, 24.3%; Goldsmiths, University of London, 21%; Aston University, Birmingham, 19.6%; The Arts University College at Bournemouth, 18.7%; Cardiff Metropolitan University, 18.7%; University of the Arts London, 18.2%; University of Hull, 18%; University of Suffolk, 18%; University of East London, 17.9%; City University, 17.8%; University of Sunderland, 17.7%; Sheffield Hallam, down 17.5%; University College, Falmouth, 17%; Nottingham Trent University, 17%; Leeds Trinity University College, 16.7%; Bath Spa University, 16%; Manchester Metropolitan University, 16%; Ruskin College Oxford, 16%; Leeds Metropolitan University, 15.9%; Bournemouth University, 15.5%; Kingston University, 15.4%; University of Brighton, 15%.
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