A Birmingham MP has claimed a national slump in university applications is proof increased fees are “putting people off applying to university”.
Universities are facing a massive slump in entrants, with overall applications down 12.9 per cent, official figures show.
With fees set to treble to a maximum of £9,000 in September 2012, applications from UK students alone are down by 15.1 per cent, according to statistics published by university admissions service Ucas.
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."
The MP for Birmingham Ladywood added: "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.
"The unfair, unnecessary and unsustainable decision to treble tuition fees to £9,000, while cutting university funding by 80%, is putting many young people off university and threatening economic growth for this country and skills for the future."
The figures come ahead of the Ucas deadline for university applications on January 15, and universities minister David Willett said it was “too early” in the applications cycle for data to reveal underlying trends for demand for places.
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 degree courses at UK universities next autumn than at the same point last year.
Ucas insisted that it was too early to make predictions about the demand for higher education next year. Would-be students have until January 15 to apply for courses beginning next autumn.
The latest figures show that 133,357 UK applicants have applied so far, a drop of 23,759 compared to the same point last year. Applications from other EU students are down 13.1% to 9,034.
The statistics also show that 13,665 fewer women have applied so far this year, compared to 9,762 fewer men.
Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook said: "Recent changes in high education funding mean that application patterns this year may be different to previous years and we are gearing up for a possible late surge close to the January 15 deadline where applicants have taken more time to research their applications.
"We expect some depression of demand due to a decline in the young population but it is much too early to predict any effects from changes in tuition fees."
Universities Minister David Willett said: "It is too early in the applications cycle for data to reveal underlying trends - the main Ucas deadline is not until January.
"Going to university depends on ability, not the ability to pay. Most new students will not pay upfront, there will be more financial support for those from poorer families and everyone will make lower loan repayments than they do now once they are in well- paid jobs."
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: "The rise in tuition fees to as much as £9,000 has helped cause a 13% drop in applications to university. Today's preliminary figures are very worrying.
"We believe putting financial barriers in front of young people who have been told their entire lives to aim for university is nothing more than a policy of penalising ambition.
"We are still waiting for some universities to re-adjust the cost of their degrees, which adds even more confusion to the situation.
"Students should be looking to study the courses most suited to their talents, not searching for something in their price range, and universities should not be forced into cutting prices to try and fill places."
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of leading universities, which includes the University of Birmingham and the University of Warwick, 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.
"The decrease in the number of Scottish applicants to Scottish universities, where there are no fees, also shows that decrease in England cannot simply be explained by the new fees and funding system."
Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students (NUS), said: "Ministers need to take responsibility for their disastrous education reforms and admit that, regardless of the final application numbers, the behaviour of prospective students will be affected by the huge rise in fees.