Tens of thousands fewer students started university courses this autumn following the move to triple tuition fees, it was suggested on Thursday.
Concerns were also raised about the "worrying" drop-off in men entering higher education.
Women are a third more likely to start a degree course than men, according to a Ucas report on university entry for 2012.
The report reveals that, in total, 53,900 fewer students started their studies this autumn, compared to last year.
It suggests that this was affected by a fall in the number of people deferring their degree last year - to avoid paying higher tuition fees.
Students who began degree courses this autumn were the first to pay tuition fees of up to £9,000.
Ucas raised concerns that women are more likely to enter higher education than men are to apply.
Among UK 18-year-olds, women were a third more likely to enter higher education than men this year, the report said.
In 2012, the entry rate fell for both men and women but the decrease for men was four times greater than for women.
"The fact that women remain more likely to enter higher education than men are to apply is a striking and worrying finding," Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook said.
The report does show an increase in the proportion of 18-year-olds from poor areas who were accepted for entry into higher education in 2012.
Curnock Cook said: "The headline numbers in this report signal the challenging environment for recruitment in 2012 for some parts of UK higher education.
"However, the underlying findings are more subtle - for example, although demand for higher education has fallen in England, the actual entry rates for young people are close to trend.
"The continuing increase in participation from more disadvantaged groups is very encouraging, as is the absence of any signal that they are turning away from higher fee courses."
Shabana Mahmood MP, Labour's shadow higher education minister, said the fact that 54,000 fewer students entered higher education this year was "a massive blow for people and communities across the UK".
"The Tory-led Government's policy to raise fees to £9,000 has put a brake on aspiration and has led people considering applying to university to decide against doing so at precisely the time that higher-level skills have never been more important to secure their future."
University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said: "Fewer students at UK universities represents the failure of the Government's higher education policies.
"Higher tuition fees forced a scramble for places last year, which simply highlights the unfair nature of the Government's hike in fees.
"If we are to open up university to our most talented people, we need to remove punitive financial barriers."
Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: "We expect that the total number of full-time students in higher education this year will be bigger than in any year before 2010.
"Therefore this shows the benefits of our reforms coming through already. More students are going to their first choice institution. Moreover, acceptance rates for applicants from disadvantaged areas increased this year.
"Our reforms are helping students to make well-informed choices using better information."
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