Older students and women are leading a charge to beat top-up fees, driving up university applications by nearly 9 per cent this year.
Some 31,000 more people than last year - enough to fill two medium-sized institutions - had applied to study at UK universities by the January 15 deadline, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
This year's 8.9 per cent overall increase compares with previous annual increases of between 1 and 3 per cent.
Applications from women have increased by 9.7 per cent and applications from students aged 21 and over are up by 15 per cent.
The overall applications in-crease in England is 9.7 per cent. Scotland, which will not introduce top-up fees, saw a 3.3 per cent rise in applications.
Foundation degrees are proving popular, with a 94 per cent rise in applications, more than compensating for the declining appeal of the higher national diploma.
Older students are thought to be more worried by debt than young people and are determined to start their courses before 2006, when most universities will charge £3,000 a year for tuition.
Many applicants seeking to beat top-ups have their sights set on a public-sector career, which is reflected in the flood of applications for social work, nursing and teaching courses.
The number of people applying to study social work is up 74 per cent, although changes in the definition of what constitutes a degree course partially accounts for this rise. Nursing is up 31 per cent and subjects allied to medicine are up per cent. Teacher training is up 11 per cent.
Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, said applications to the university's faculty of health and social care sciences were up 70 per cent. Overall, applications to Kingston are up 32 per cent.
He said: "Older people are more conscious of debt. If you are 35 to 40 years old and applying for a humanities degree, you are more conscious of the fact that it's not going to pay financial dividends and you have less time to pay back the debt."
New universities appear to be reaping the benefits of the rise in applications, suggesting that, in some subject areas, they will have few places left for the summer clearing process.
The number of people applying to London South Bank University is up 29 per cent.
Deian Hopkin, its vice-chancellor, said that institutions with a higher proportion of mature students had seen significant rises in the number of applicants.
He said: "Many students may not fully understand the nature of the deal on the table for 2006. A lot of students from very poor backgrounds will have more money upfront in 2006.
"The Government has a very important role to play to explain more clearly the arrangements that it has introduced."
Hannah Essex, vice-president for education at the National Union of Students, said: "The increase in applications from older students and women suggests that many are worried about the huge increase in graduate debt that top-up fees will bring in 2006 and, consequently, are applying now before the increase is introduced."
But Kim Howells, the Higher Education Minister, said: "This increase in applicants is good news. There are record numbers of people going to university, and there is confidence that even more students will go on to university in the future.
"From 2006, the system will be fairer and more affordable for students."
Ucas had previously denied that there would be a rush to beat top-ups.
Staff at the agency have in the past come under pressure not to make political statements. This week, Ucas attributed the rise to an increase in electronic applications.
Matthew Andrews, head of undergraduate admissions at Durham University, said: "There is a pleasing increase in the number of applicants, but it's difficult to say whether it's people wanting to avoid paying top-up fees or whether it's a success in universities encouraging more applications."
RISES AND FALLS
UP University College Chester 48%
UP University of Wales College, Newport 41%
UP Bolton 36%
UP Soas 33%
UP Kingston 32%
UP Bradford 30%
UP London Met 29%
UP Aston 29%
UP London South Bank 29%
UP Thames Valley 29%
DOWN Napier - 10%
DOWN Lancaster - 8.9%
DOWN Nottingham - 7.5%
DOWN Paisley - 5.1%
DOWN Heriot-Watt - 4.9%
DOWN Leicester - 4.4 %
DOWN Bath - 4.1%
DOWN Queen's University Belfast - 3.8%
DOWN Reading - 3.7%
DOWN Surrey - 3.1%