Fewer young people now aspire to attend university, according to a new poll, with many citing financial concerns or saying they simply do not like the idea.
Around three-quarters (74 per cent) of secondary school pupils are planning to study for a degree – but this figure is at its lowest level since 2009, according to the Sutton Trust survey.
In 2013, more than four-fifths (81 per cent) said they wanted to go to university – and last year around the proportion stood at 77 per cent.
In the annual Sutton Trust poll, which questioned more than 2,600 11- to 16-year-olds in England and Wales, around one in seven (14 per cent) said they were unlikely to go on to higher education, compared with 11 per cent last year, and 8 per cent five years ago in 2012.
Of those who said they were unlikely to go to university, seven in 10 said they did not like the idea, or did not enjoy studying, while nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) had financial reasons, such as wanting to start earning as soon as possible or debt concerns. More than two in five of these respondents (44 per cent) thought they were not clever enough, or would not get good enough results, while a similar proportion (42 per cent) did not think they would need a degree for the jobs they were considering.
Of those who said they were likely to study for a degree, around half (51 per cent) said they were worried about the cost of higher education, up from 47 per cent last year.
The biggest money concern was tuition fees, followed by having to repay student loans for up to 30 years and the cost of living as a student.
The study has been published amid a growing debate about the future of tuition fees, which now stand at up to £9,250 a year for universities in England.
The increase meant that young people were 4 per cent more likely to go to university than in 2015 and 31 per cent more likely than in 2006.
System 'badly in need of reform'
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: "It is no surprise that there has been a fall in the proportion of young people hoping to go into higher education.
"Our own separate research has shown that graduates will be paying back their loans well into middle age, affecting their ability to go to graduate school, afford a mortgage and decisions on having children.
"With debts up to £57,000 for poorer graduates and soaring student loan interest rates, the system is badly in need of reform.
"It is outrageous that someone from a council estate should pay more than someone from a top boarding school.
"This reform should include means-testing tuition fees and restoring maintenance grants so poorer students face lower fees and lower debt on graduation."
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL teaching union, said: "It is no surprise that young people are unwilling to take on the huge debts now required to attend university, particularly since the average student leaves university with debts in excess of £50,000.
"Many young people who have experienced their families’ financial struggles as children will be wary of taking on such a huge burden of debt.
"Cuts to university budgets have also affected widening-participation programmes, so there is less money for outreach programmes to help disadvantaged young people aware of the opportunities in higher education.
"The increase in disadvantaged young people not applying for university is as a result of the government abolishing maintenance grants for students from low-income homes, and allowing universities to put up their fees further if they reach agreed standards in teaching.”
Universities minister Jo Johnson said: "The reality is that young people are more likely to go to university than ever before, with entry rates for 18-year-olds rising every year since 2012.
"Those from disadvantaged backgrounds are 43 per cent more likely to enter higher education than in 2009.
"Our student finance system ensures that costs are split fairly between graduates and the taxpayer. However, there is still more to do to ensure that students get value for money.
"That is why we have created a new regulator, the Office for Students, that will hold universities to account for teaching quality and student outcomes through the Teaching Excellence Framework."