The admissions service Ucas has reported that the number of people applying for UK university places has fallen by more than 25,000 (4%) on last year.
The figures also showed a sharp decline in those applying to study nursing courses – down 19% – and a continued fall in the number of mature students, notably in England and Northern Ireland. The number of EU students planning to study in the UK has fallen by 5%.
Fees in England will increase to £9,250 this year, and student loans are subject to a rise in interest rates from 4.6% to 6.1% from this autumn.
University leaders said a number of factors could be fuelling the fall in applicants, including Brexit, higher fees and funding changes for trainee nurses and midwives.
From 1 August, new nursing, midwifery and most allied health students will no longer receive NHS bursaries – instead, they will have access to the same student loans system as other students.
The Ucas figures showed the number of people who had applied to UK universities for the coming academic year by the 30 June deadline was 649,700, compared with 674,890 in 2016.
There have been reductions in applicants from all four countries in the UK: 437,860 applications from students in England – down 5% from 459,430 last year; 48,940 from Scotland – down 1% from 49,470; 22,530 from Wales – down 5% from 23,740; and 20,290 from Northern Ireland – down 4% from 21,110.
Applications from EU students fell from 51,850 in 2016 to 49,250 this year. However, applicants from overseas countries outside of the European Union are up 2%, from 69,300 in 2016 to 70,830 this year.
There has been a significant drop in mature students (those aged 25 and over) in England and Northern Ireland – down 18% (11,190) and 13% (220) respectively.
Dr Mark Corver, Ucas director of analysis and research, said: “Within the figures, there are contrasting trends. How these trends translate into students at university and colleges will become clear over the next six weeks, as applicants get their results and secure their places and new applicants apply direct to Ucas’s clearing process.”
Prof Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said: “The downward trend in mature student numbers is now one of the most pressing issues in fair access to higher education. Undoubtedly, the reasons behind the fall are complex and multiple, but universities and colleges should look to do what they can to reverse the decline in mature student applications, as a matter of urgency.”