More than 25,000 extra full-time undergraduates started university or college last autumn compared with the previous year.
This represents a 6 per cent rise in the number of accepted applicants, according to figures published today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Final figures show that 639,860 people applied to start university or college in the UK in 2009 and 481,854 gained places, meaning that 75 per cent were accepted.
There was an 8 per cent rise in accepted applicants from the most disadvantaged areas.
However, overall the proportion of applicants who were accepted was slightly lower than the previous year, when 78 per cent gained places.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, said there had been “unprecedented demand for places at university or college, but significantly more students have been accepted into higher education than ever before”.
There was a particularly steep increase in applications from people aged 25 and over – 89,133 applied in 2009 compared with 77,286 in 2008, a rise of 15 per cent.
Ms Curnock Cook said: “There are many factors that drive people to consider higher education, including the current economic situation, with more people looking to long-term retraining in traditionally more secure or transferable careers, such as nursing (up 20 per cent) and combinations within business and administrative studies (up 11 per cent).”
Over the past decade, there has been a 44 per cent increase in the number of students with places at university and college – in 1999, there were just 334,594 accepted applicants.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the figures showed that people understood the benefits and value of higher education.
The rise in mature applicants demonstrated how far the sector had “moved away from the old model of university just being an activity for 18- to 21-year-olds”, she added.
However, she warned that with rising student numbers, UUK would continue to campaign against cuts to the sector.
“As demand continues to increase, and with the continued cap on student numbers, we are going to see even more pressure on places.
“The case for continued investment in higher education is overwhelming, not least to avoid a situation where there are thousands of unhappy, unsuccessful applicants to university this summer,” she said.