|The number of students accepted on full-time higher education courses fell by more than 15,000 compared to last year as controversial top-up fees came into force.
Provisional figures from the admissions services Ucas showed 389,505 applicants were accepted on UK full-time higher education courses starting this year compared with 404,668 in 2005 and 375,530 in 2004.
This represents a fall of 3.7 per cent between 2006 and 2005 but a rise of 3.7 per cent between 2006 and 2004, Ucas said.
The fall over the past year comes as undergraduates starting degree courses this autumn are charged top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year although they will not have to pay until after graduation.
The Ucas figures also show 37,729 applicants successfully found a place through clearing in comparison with 36,904 last year.
In total, 504,748 would-be students applied to courses through Ucas this year, a reduction of 3.1 per cent on 2005 and an increase of 4.3 per cent on 2004.
The majority of applications, 98.1 per cent, were made online.
Ucas figures released last month showed the number of people applying to university was already down by around 15,000 compared to last year.
The same statistics, released in September, also showed that about 13,000 fewer students had been accepted on to courses than at the same time in 2005.
Universities have been keen to point out that applications and acceptances have been up on 2004, and have characterised last year's figures as a blip due to some students rushing to avoid top-up fees.
According to the September figures, the total number of applicants to universities and colleges in 2006 was 501,887, compared with 480,200 in 2004 and 516,714 in 2005.
Meanwhile, 385,149 students had found a place at university as at September 25, compared with 369,695 at roughly the same point in 2004 and 398,214 in 2005.
The total number of English applicants accepted on to UK full-time education courses starting in 2006 fell 4.5 per cent from 301,206 in 2005 to 287,739 in 2006, according to the Ucas figures.
The number of students from Wales accepted on to UK full-time higher education courses in the same period showed a 0.3 per cent drop from 16,849 to 16,801.
The number of applications from students from Scotland accepted to UK full-time higher education courses declined 3.5 per cent to 26,666 from 27,646, with the figure for Northern Ireland falling 7 per cent from 13,909 to 12,936.
Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell, commenting on England, said: "Today's Ucas figures confirm that our opponents are being proved wrong.
"We were told that variable fees would lead to applications plummeting, particularly from young people from less well-off backgrounds.
"Well, that isn't happening. In fact, there is a slight increase in the proportion of students entering university from these backgrounds.
"And although this autumn we are seeing a small decrease - 4.5 per cent - in university entrants, this comes on the back of a larger than usual increase - 8.9 per cent - in those entering last year.
"Compared to 2004, numbers are up by 12,000, or 4.3 per cent.
"It's as we expected, and is what happened when tuition fees were first introduced in 1998.
"Then, there was a small reduction, after which applications continued upwards. The underlying trend is still up."