Universities have appealed for funding for more undergraduate places after applications hit record highs for the fourth year running.
Figures released this week show that as of 22 January, there were 570,556 applicants for full-time undergraduate places - a rise of 106,389, or 23 per cent, on 2009.
Demand has risen even more steeply among older age groups - among 21- to 24-year-olds, applications are up 45 per cent, and by 63 per cent among the over-25s.
Many universities recorded overall increases in applications of more than 50 per cent.
Some of the most dramatic rises are explained by the introduction of an earlier application deadline for some art and design courses.
However, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service said there were also signs that the recession was prompting people to apply as they sought to retrain.
Compared with last year, the number of applications to study social work has risen by 41 per cent, while nursing is up 74 per cent.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, said: "It is clear that once again we have seen a significant rise in applications, which leaves us in no doubt that, as last year, this cycle will be challenging and competitive for applicants and the sector generally."
There has also been a 46 per cent jump in the number of applicants reapplying - 46,012 of this year's applicants had also applied for a place in 2009.
This includes those who withdrew or decided not to take up offers, as well as those who were turned away.
|Hot spots: Ucas application figures 2010-11|
|Biggest rises in applications compared with 2009|
|University of the Arts London||26,478||+111.0|
|University for the Creative Arts||8,7||+93.8|
|Edinburgh Napier University||15,019||+78.5|
|Thames Valley University||9,139||+75.5|
|University of the West of Scotland||9,417||+65.3|
|University of Bedfordshire||14,574||+54.5|
|Bucks New University||7,963||+54.0|
|The Robert Gordon University||8,748||+53.0|
|Anglia Ruskin University||13,141||+52.7|
|De Montfort University||24,607||+51.5|
|Smallest rises in applications compared with 2009|
|University of Bristol||37,892||-3.6|
|London School of Economics||18,368||-0.4|
|University of Edinburgh||45,258||+0.6|
|University of Reading||17,158||+1.2|
|University of Warwick||33,548||+1.3|
|University of Cambridge||15,863||+1.3|
Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, called for extra places to be made available, but he emphasised that they must be fully funded.
Last summer, the Government opened up 10,000 extra "emergency" places for students, but universities were not given funding to teach them.
"It is in no one's interest to have another round of unfunded growth, and it is therefore critical that we do not have any expansion without funding," Professor Smith said.
Patrick McGhee, the new vice-chancellor of the University of East London, said it was extremely unfortunate that at the very moment efforts to widen participation appeared to be paying off, as illustrated by an analysis published last month by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, UEL would have to reject a "huge number" of applicants.
He pointed out that half his students hailed from disadvantaged backgrounds and many were from ethnic-minority groups, and argued for targeted support for these students.
"We need to have some national reflection on where we stand," Professor McGhee said. "We have created these aspirations as a society, and now we find ourselves with the highest number of applications ever and limited capacity to address that demand."
Les Ebdon, chair of Million+, which represents new universities, said: "The Government now has a straightforward choice: fully fund additional student places in 2010 or spend more on benefits for the thousands turned away."
Elsewhere in the sector, applications to study at the University of Cambridge were up by 1.3 per cent, but at the University of Oxford they jumped by 12 per cent.