University applications down by 8%
The latest university application figures have fallen by 8% compared with the same point last year - and are the lowest for at least six years.
The head of the Million+ university group says "alarm bells should be ringing in government".
The Ucas admissions figures up to mid-November show 13,000 fewer applications - down for both UK and overseas.
But Universities UK said that it was too early in the application cycle for an "accurate picture of final demand".
The introduction of higher tuition fees had seen a drop in applications for autumn 2012 - but university leaders had anticipated that demand would recover.
These early figures from the application process for autumn 2013 - ahead of the main deadline in January - show a further downward fall.'Too early'
The National Union of Students president, Liam Burns, said: "The government should now finally admit that its higher education policies are having a significant impact on application behaviour.
"We have always said that students and their families aren't walking calculators capable of working out how much they are likely to repay based on hypothetical future earnings. Regardless of the repayment terms and the small print, students were always going to be deterred by £9,000 tuition fees."
But Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook said: "Although the number of applicants to UK higher education is down by 8% on this time last year, experience tells us that changes at this point in the cycle are a poor guide to final demand.
"For example, in the 2012 cycle the decrease in applicants in November was much greater than the final picture in January, possibly because applicants were making more considered decisions about their higher education choices after the tuition fee changes in 2012."
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said: "It's far too early in the year to say what the overall applications numbers will be this year. 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."UK breakdown
Ucas figures show there were 145,000 applications up to 19 November, compared with 158,000 at the same point last year and 182,000 the previous year.
A breakdown of the UK figure shows that in 2010 there were 141,000 applicants from England at this stage, compared with 108,000 this year.
The figures published for English applications run back to 2006, when applications were 113,000 - higher than at present.
Although smaller numbers, in Scotland - where Scottish students do not pay tuition fees - there has been a bigger year-on-year percentage drop than in England, falling by 10.5%.
There have also been smaller declines in Wales and Northern Ireland.
This will raise concerns among universities which have already reported unfilled places in the current year, as changes to funding and a more market-driven approach are introduced.
The Ucas figures, dating back to 2006, show the first fall in overseas applications, which have become financially very significant to universities in the UK.
There have been warnings about the impact of the high-profile case of London Metropolitan University being barred from recruiting overseas students - and concerns about difficulties over student visas.
A spokeswoman for the Business, Innovation and Skills department, said: "It is too early in this year's application cycle to drawn any firm conclusions. "Numbers are down across the devolved administrations and November has historically been a poor guide to changes in applications at the 15 January deadline."