Northern Ireland university applications fall by 4%
The number of UK students applying to start university this autumn has fallen by almost 9%, official figures show.
In total, 462,507 people have applied for courses beginning in September, compared with 506,388 at this point last year - a drop of 8.7%, according to statistics published by Ucas.
Tuition fees for English universities are due to triple to a maximum of £9,000 this autumn.
Overall application from all students, both home and abroad, are down by 7.4%, the figures show,
The figures show that the number of applicants have fallen from all parts of the UK.
In England the number of applicants has dropped by 9.9%, Northern Ireland 4%, Scotland 1.5% and Wales 1.9%.
Education experts warned that the Government's plans to raise tuition fees could be having an impact on application figures.
But Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook suggested that population changes could be a factor in the fall, and said the drop in demand was larger among wealthier students than poorer ones.
And university leaders said the dip had been "far less dramatic" than had been predicted.
Ms Curnock Cook said: "There has been a headline drop of 7.4% in applicants, with a slightly larger fall in England.
"The more detailed analysis of application rates for young people takes account of population changes. This shows a fall of just one percentage point in the application rate in England, with little change across the rest of the UK.
"Our analysis shows that decreases in demand are slightly larger in more advantaged groups than in the disadvantaged groups. Widely expressed concerns about recent changes in HE funding arrangements having a disproportionate effect on more disadvantaged groups are not borne out by these data."
Martin Lewis, of Money Saving Expert and head of the Independent Taskforce on Student Finance Information, said: "There is no doubt that the new higher fees in England will have put some students off. More difficult is assessing how big a problem that is.
"The worst-case scenario is that it is those from non-traditional university backgrounds - wrongly panicked into feeling they can't afford fees or scared of being saddled with huge unmanageable debt.
"The best-case scenario is that this is a legitimate call from those who have investigated the cost, the value, and evaluated university is now not for them.
"I suspect it's a mix."
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice chancellors' umbrella group Universities UK, said: "While overall applicants have decreased compared with the same point last year, the dip is far less dramatic than many were initially predicting.
"And if we look at the number of 18-year-old applicants from the UK, this has dropped by only 3.6% at a time when the overall 18-year-old population is in decline.
"We will have to look now in more detail at whether students from certain backgrounds have been deterred more than others. We will continue monitoring the impact of the new system on students and specific subjects.
"For prospective students, it's important to remember that there is still time to apply. This is only the start of the admissions process. The important thing will be looking at how many of these, and subsequent applications, turn into acceptances in the coming months."
Today's statistics are the first snapshot to be published since the main deadline for applying to university - January 15.
Would-be students who apply before this date will have the application given "equal consideration" by university.