University applications have fallen for the first time in six years, as higher fees are introduced across England.
The official figures show a decline in applications
Almost 13,000 fewer students have applied for courses starting in September than had applied at this time last year - a fall of 3.4%.
The National Union of Students blamed the fall on higher tuition fees, where students will pay up to £3,000 a year.
Ministers stressed that last year's applications rose by almost 8% as some raced to avoid the top-up fee deadline.
Currently the amount universities in England can charge students for tuition each year is capped at £1,175.
But - as long as they can show they are supporting students from poorer backgrounds - universities in England can charge up to £3,000 a year for tuition from September.
The effect of the so-called top up fees system is evident in the differences between applications for English universities and those for Scottish and Welsh universities, which are not charging the higher fees.
Official figures from the University and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) show all applications to English universities are down by 3.7%, while applications to Scottish universities are up by 1.6% and to Welsh universities by 0.5%.
The biggest fall - of 4.5% - is amongst English students applying to English universities. By contrast the figure for applications from English students applying to Scotland is up by 1.9%.
The total number of applicants was 371,683. Each can make up to six applications - the average was just over five.
Influence on applicants
A spokesman for Ucas said the new fees regime had "undoubtedly" influenced applications.
"We must remember that 2005 was exceptional - at the same time last year there was an increase of over 8%," he said.
"The introduction of variable fees has undoubtedly influenced applicant trends."
Higher education minister Bill Rammell said: "I have always said that we would see a small fall in applications this year on the back of the much larger than usual increase last year.
"But applications this year are still almost 12,500 above the corresponding figure in 2004.
"Crucially, today's figures show that there has been no reduction in the proportion of students from lower socio-economic groups applying to university."
But the president of the NUS Kat Fletcher said: "The drop in applications is extremely worrying, and suggests that top-up fees and the debt they represent is deterring potential students.
"As a society, we could be missing out on thousands of potential doctors, teachers, scientists, engineers because the fear of debt has put them off from going to university and achieving their aspirations."
Some students may not have applied because they did not understand what was on offer, she added.
"The system is confusing and looks set to get worse, if universities start changing the financial support on offer in order to fill vacant places during the clearing process," she said.
Professor Drummond Bone, the president of the umbrella group Universities UK, said the figures should be seen in the context of the "very large year-on-year increase (8%) in applicants last year".
"It's important to recognise that this year's 3.4% drop doesn't affect the overall trend of the last few years, which is still upwards," said Professor Bone.
'Beginning to bite'
Shadow Higher Education Minister Boris Johnson, said there was "no cause for undue alarm".
"Obviously we must all work to ensure that no one who could benefit from university is put off by the prospect of debt," he said.
But the Liberal Democrat Shadow Education Secretary, Edward Davey, said the figures showed student fees were "beginning to bite".
"More and more students are taking term time jobs and missing lectures to earn money to pay fees. The cost of a degree is going up, while the opportunity to study is going down," he said.