The number of students applying for places in English universities for the 2011-12 academic year dropped by 10% compared to the same time last year.
The government-appointed Independent Commission on Fees has been analysing the figures to try to work out the connection, if any, with the rise in tuition fees to up to £9,000.
Will Hutton, who chairs the commission, told the Today programme that it appears to be applicants from better off homes "who are thinking hardest about assuming these debt levels".
Universities Minister David Willetts accepts that there has been a "modest fall in applications" but points out that it is "the second highest rate of applications on record".
On the subject of the increase in tuition fees, he says that student should see the debt they have to pay after university as a "higher rate of income tax... an extra 9%" they have to pay on earnings above £21,000 per year.
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