The number of applications to university has leapt by 23 per cent, figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show today.
As of 22 January, there were 570,556 applicants for full-time undergraduate places – 106,389 more than at the same point last year.
The data also show significant increases in the number of older applicants, with applications from 21- to 24-year-olds up 45 per cent and those from over 25s up 63 per cent.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, said there was “no doubt” that those seeking a university place this autumn faced tough competition.
“It is clear that once again we have seen a significant rise in applications,” she said, “which leaves us in no doubt that, as last year, this cycle will be very challenging and competitive for applicants and the higher education sector generally.”
There were signs that the recession was prompting people to apply to higher education as they sought to retrain, she added. Compared with last year, the number of applications to study social work is up 41 per cent, while nursing is up 74 per cent.
Ucas also revealed that many applications were from people who had failed to gain a place in 2009.
“The 2010 figures include 46,012 applicants who previously applied in 2009,” Ms Curnock Cook said.
“This figure will include applicants who withdrew or decided not to take up offers, as well as those who were unsuccessful in securing a place in 2009. However, it does represent an increase of 45.5 per cent in the number of applicants who were reapplying compared with 2009.”
Despite record demand, there will be up to 6,000 fewer places for full-time undergraduate entrants this autumn than there were last autumn.
Universities responded to the news by calling for more places, but Steve Smith, the president of Universities UK, emphasised that the extra places had to be fully funded.
“With this unprecedented demand for higher education courses, UUK believes that the case for continued public investment in higher education is overwhelming.
“This should take the form of the allocation of additional student numbers, but UUK stresses that these must be fully funded, both in terms of Higher Education Funding Council for England funding and in terms of additional Treasury support for student support costs.”
Last summer, the Government opened up 10,000 extra “emergency” places, but these were only part-funded.
“It is absolutely 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.
Universities are also facing fines of up to £10 million between them for recruiting more students than the Government allowed last year.
In December, Lord Mandelson said universities would be fined £3,700 for each student they recruited above the permitted level.