Universities are facing a 15.1% slump in UK entrants, despite a recent poll showing a "surprising" number of students still planning to pursue higher education.
With fees set to treble to a maximum of £9,000 in 2012, applications overall are down 12.9%, according to statistics published by Ucas.
But while fewer UK students are applying to university, the number of applicants from overseas, outside of the EU, has risen by 11.8%, the data shows.
In total, 23,427 fewer people have applied to start UK degree courses in 2012 than this time last year. This is despite research conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) revealing only 37% of students surveyed said they were less likely to go to university because of fees.
The statistics also show 13,665 fewer women have applied so far this year, compared to 9,762 fewer men.
Shadow universities minister Shabana Mahmood said: "These latest figures show that the Tory-led Government's decision to treble tuition fees is continuing to put people off applying to university.
"It is unfair that many who have the ability to go to university are being put off applying because of the high levels of debt that they will face."
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of leading universities, said: "It would be no real surprise if overall applications through Ucas are somewhat lower for 2012 entry than for 2011, but we shouldn't rush to assume that this is due to higher fees.
"For one thing, demographic change means there will be fewer 18-year-olds leaving school or college in 2012 than in 2011.
"We also know that in 2011 there was a drop in numbers opting for a 'gap year', meaning more applications in 2011, and fewer applications for 2012 entry. Current 2012 figures are actually very similar to figures at the same point in 2010.Suggest a correction