The number of UK students applying to university has slumped for the second year in a row, official figures show.
New Ucas statistics show that 265,730 people living in the UK had applied to start degree courses this autumn by December 17 - down 6.3% compared with the same point the previous year.
The fall is likely to spark fresh concerns that would-be university students are still being put off by higher tuition fees.
Among students in England alone, applications have plummeted by 6.5%, with 229,932 applying by December 17. The figures also show a slight drop among other EU students, with applications down 1.9%. But the number of overseas students from outside the EU hoping to study at UK universities this autumn has risen by 0.8%, the statistics show.
The latest fall in applications follows a larger drop last year. By mid-December 2011, 245,882 people had applied to start degree courses in autumn 2012, down 7.6% on the previous year. English students starting university last autumn were the first to pay tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year.
Overall, the number applying to university is now at its lowest level since 2009, when 266,296 UK students had applied by mid-December.
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of university group million+, said: "The worrying trend of falling university applications continues, according to the most recent statistics published by Ucas. We urge the Government to step in with a national campaign to promote the value of university for potential students currently considering their options, whether they are about to leave school or considering a university course later in life."
The main deadline for students applying to university for this autumn is January 15. Last year, about 60% of those who had applied by this deadline had submitted their application by December 2011, according to Ucas. The latest figures also show 10,528 students in Northern Ireland have submitted applications, up 0.5% compared with a similar point the previous year; in Scotland, 14,052 people have applied, a fall of 3.9% compared with the previous year; and in Wales, 11,218 students have submitted applications, down 11.7% on the previous year.
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, which represents a group of the UK's top universities, said: "As Ucas themselves say, it's likely that around 40% of students have yet to apply so let's not jump the gun - it's still too early in the year to say what the overall applications numbers will be. It's only right that prospective students are taking their time deciding which universities to apply to and making use of all the information available to them. Going to a good university remains a sound investment for the vast majority. Most graduates earn a considerable salary premium over those with two A-levels, and Russell Group graduates typically receive a 10% salary top-up over those who went to a modern university."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "We are witnessing a worrying trend of fewer people applying to university, particularly amongst young people. We have heard many warm words from the Government about greater efforts to make university appeal to more people, but the bottom line is that hiking up the cost is likely to have an impact on people's decisions when it comes to further study. We need our brightest people pursuing their dreams. We simply cannot afford to fall behind other countries that are seeing a rise in the number of students and graduates. More must be done to encourage people to aspire to university and far greater efforts made to support them when they are there."