Universities are facing a huge slump in entrants — with applications from Northern Ireland down 16.9%, well above the UK average.
Official figures reveal a UK drop of 12.9% with the largest fall of 17.1% among Scottish applicants.
Earlier this year Stormont Higher Education minister Stephen Farry announced that fees for students from Northern Ireland would be frozen at £3,465 for the duration of the Assembly.
With fees set to increase elsewhere in the UK to a maximum of £9,000 in 2012, applications from students from within the UK are down by 15.1%, according to statistics published by Ucas.
But while fewer UK students are applying to university, the number of applicants from overseas, outside of the EU, has risen by 11.8%, the data shows.
In total, 23,427 fewer people have applied to start degree courses at UK universities next autumn than at the same point last year.
Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook said: “Recent changes in high education funding mean that application patterns this year may be different to previous years and we are gearing up for a possible late surge close to the January 15 deadline. We expect some depression of demand due to a decline in the young population.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, called the preliminary figures “very worrying”.