A drop in EU students and nursing candidates has driven the decline, figures show.
Fees in England are rising again, and it is the first fall in UK applications since fees were last increased in 2012.
The Royal College of Nursing blamed the 23% drop in nursing applications on the removal of bursaries.
Universities Minister Jo Johnson said that despite the overall drop, more 18-year-olds were applying to university.
These UCAS admissions figures, up to the January deadline for courses starting in the autumn, show a 5% drop in UK students and 7% drop in students from the European Union – with a total of about 564,000.
Universities have been warning about the impact of Brexit on their finances if European applications fall and these figures show a significant decline in candidates from the EU.
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