Undergraduate applications are down by more than a fifth at a considerable proportion of post-1992 universities, a survey by Times Higher Education suggests.
The straw poll, which took a snapshot of applications from UK and European Union students during the first weeks of December, shows that the biggest drops appear to be occurring at newer universities, with some reporting falls of around 30 per cent compared with last year.
But while there is a hugely varied picture across the sector - with some research-intensive universities also seeing decreases significantly higher than the sector average - it is clear that there has been a rise in applications in most institutions when comparing figures with those of two years ago.
Some commentators claim that this is the more valid comparison, in light of a surge in applications last year ahead of the increase in tuition fees.
However, statistics released last week by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service cast doubt on this argument, showing that the number of applicants in last year's cycle rose just 0.4 per cent on the previous year.
Overall, the THE survey, to which around a sixth of the sector's institutions responded, shows an average drop in applications of 7.4 per cent on the same point in 2010, but a rise of 11.1 per cent on 2009.
The figures suggest that it is still too early to draw conclusions ahead of the final applications deadline of 15 January, with one university noting that it normally received only about 15 per cent of its total applications by early December.
But subject trends do seem to be emerging: a number of institutions report that vocational courses such as business and law are doing better than some others. Other universities say that the numbers are changing significantly each day.
The universities of Sussex and Essex both said their percentage falls on 2010 had narrowed dramatically in just a few days from almost 10 per cent to just 3 per cent.
Joanne Tallentire, head of admissions at Essex, said the institution was also finding it more useful to review admissions data over a long period - at the time of the survey, its figures were up around 40 per cent on three years ago.
"It is important to put these figures in context. We saw huge growth in applications for 2010 entry and, of course, applications for 2011 entry were received earlier than usual due to the introduction of the new fee regime," she said.
The most recent official figures from Ucas show that overall applications were down 12.5 per cent year on year, which may suggest that institutions that have been doing well were more likely to reply to the THE survey.
Among those to participate were York St John University, where applications were up 10.4 per cent on 2010, Anglia Ruskin University (up 5.3 per cent), Edge Hill University (up 3.6 per cent) and the University of Reading (up 2 per cent).