British universities have seen a significant drop in applicants,according to the first official figures into next year's intake.
The Ucas figures are set to show a drop of around 10 per cent in applications in the wake of tuition fees rising to up to £9,000 a year from next September. University lecturers' leaders claimed they proved that ministers "risk consigning an entire generation to a scrapheap of inactivity".
A breakdown of the figures shows that Oxford and Cambridge are largely unaffected by the drop, as are applications to medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses. These are the only ones with a final-application deadline of 15 October.
The fall also appears to have hit Scottish universities just as hard as those in England, despite Scottish students not having to pay the higher fees. The drop in figures north of the border is said to be around 10 per cent, suggesting that the fall in English universities is likely to be significantly higher.
Government sources were briefing last night that the fall was higher among mature students, who may think they have less time to pay off debts than school leavers. Today's figures are the first in a series of statistics showing applications for courses next year and cover only around 10 per cent of the total. The final-application deadline is 15 January.
Individual university applications have not been disclosed, but government sources suggested there was a "mixed picture". Some universities where cost of living is high, many of them in London, have seen applications fall off by up to 40 per cent.
But others are reporting an increase, with the London School of Economics bucking the trend with a 6 per cent rise. "The real worry here is that – as youth unemployment reaches a million and further-education colleges are hit with funding cuts – we risk consigning an entire generation to a scrapheap of inactivity and a future without jobs or opportunity," said Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. "The Government needs to rethink its funding policy, which risks doing serious damage to students and universities."
Government sources said Scottish universities which have four-year courses were particularly badly hit. One, Edinburgh, took out a sizeable advertisement in a Sunday newspaper yesterday in an attempt to attract more students by stressing they would not have to pay up-front fees.
There is "no evidence" to suggest that students from poorer backgrounds had been put off, the source claimed. "It is early days in the application process and it would be wrong to draw too many conclusions at this stage. We are seeing some trends but it is a pretty mixed picture and I think we are going to have to wait and see the full impact later in the year," they added.
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which oversees university budgets, said it was increasing the number of visits it paid to schools and colleges in November and December, with a view to persuading more pupils to apply. A spokeswoman added that the school leaver cohort was down on last year by about 1.5 per cent, which might also have had an effect on applications.