Mature students are returning to full-time study following the reintroduction of grants for them.
The number of British people aged 21 and above who have applied for full-time courses is up 4.7 per cent on last year, according to figures released today by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
From September, mature students will be entitled to a grant covering up to 85 per cent of the costs of childcare.
It replaces the £1,000-a-year bursary for childcare and travel costs introduced last year. The bursary was criticised for being discretionary rather than statutory.
Margaret Hodge, higher education minister, said: "I am pleased that the number of UK mature student applicants has risen significantly - by 4.7 per cent - compared with this time last year. I hope that the extra support this year for student parents, both... childcare grants and additional help with travel, books and equipment, has helped."
Owain James, president of the National Union of Students, said: "The NUS welcomes the rise in mature student applications, which may well be due to small increases in financial support by way of grants and bursaries.
"But I don't want to get too excited over the number of applications. The latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that actual enrolments for this group were down 26 per cent since 1997 and dropout rates across the board are high.
"The NUS is urging the government to do much more to get application levels up to those in 1997 when Labour came to power. The government must properly support students by... re-introducing a system of student grants."
The change of fortune comes after the number of mature students studying full-time plummeted following the introduction of tuition fees and the abolition of maintenance grants.
The government responded by introducing access bursaries for mature students with children alongside hardship funds.
Alison Gray, student financial support coordinator at Nottingham Trent University, said: "We have had more students with dependent children applying for access bursaries and hardship funds. Whether it is existing students or new students, we cannot yet tell. But the number of students receiving help has increased by 65 per cent and the funds by 85 per cent compared with last year.
"A lot of students... said it made the difference between entering higher education and not entering. The new childcare grant is going to have a huge impact."
Rachel Hewitt, head of student recruitment at Kingston University, said:
"The bursaries have had a positive impact at Kingston University. Many of the students have commented that the extra support is one of the major factors allowing them to continue with their studies."
From September, mature students aged 25 years or above could also be entitled to a dependants' allowance, school meals grant and an equipment and travel grant. Discretionary support through access and hardship funds will continue. But students aged between 21 and 25 years will not necessarily receive all these benefits.
Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said: "The increase in full-time undergraduate applications through Ucas is further evidence that people, young and not so young, see the value of a university education."
The growth in young applicants is more modest. Ucas data show a 1.9 per cent rise in the number of young British people applying to university this year.
An extra 5,660 young people have applied. This is slightly better than might be expected from a 3,900 increase in the 17 to 21-year-old age group this year. Some 85 per cent of UK applicants through Ucas fall into this age range.
From September, young disadvantaged students will be eligible for bursaries worth £2,000 over three years. Some 7,000 bursaries will be available for students from low-income backgrounds in Excellence in Cities and Education Action Zone areas.
Some elite institutions are attracting fewer applications this year than last. The University of Cambridge received 7.2 per cent fewer applications. Imperial College, London, saw numbers slump by 12.1 per cent. Applications to University College London fell 4.7 per cent.
Both Cambridge and Imperial have recruited fewer students than they were entitled to enrol for a number of years, according to an unpublished report, Supply and Demand in Higher Education , compiled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Other institutions are faring better. Applications to St Andrews University, where Prince William is due to start his art history course in autumn, are up 43.6 per cent.
The application figures relate to the number of applications received by Ucas by June 30.