Some 580,000 applicants applied to higher education courses in the UK by 15 January, the main deadline for university applications, far higher than at the same point last year, according to statistics published by the admissions body Ucas on 31 January.
With the number of 18-year-olds 1 per cent lower this year, it means application rates for young people across the UK are at, or near, their highest levels.
An unprecedented 35 per cent of 18-year-olds from England have submitted a Ucas application this year.
That is likely to hearten universities amid concerns that demographic changes would prevent them from filling the extra 30,000 places allocated to them in 2014-15 by Chancellor George Osborne in his Autumn Statement. In 2015-16, the government plans to scrap student number controls completely.
Much of the growth in applications – an extra 7,000 applicants in 2012-13 – was from women.
It means about 87,000 more women applied to university than men, who are a third less likely to apply to higher education.
“There remains a stubborn gap between male and female applicants which, on current trends, could eclipse the gap between rich and poor within a decade,” said Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas.
“Young men are becoming a disadvantaged group in terms of going to university and this underperformance needs urgent focus across the education sector,” she added.
This year’s figures, which are likely to represent about 85 per cent of all UK applications, also show that young people from the most disadvantaged areas in England are now almost twice as likely to apply as they were in 2004, significantly closing the gap with those from the most advantaged areas over the last decade.
More applicants than ever are exercising all five of their choices, pushing the total number of applications to a record 2.5 million.
Applications have increased to all types of institutions (high, medium and low tariff), while the number of applicants aged 20 and over has increased by 5 per cent to 133,950.
“This analysis shows a remarkably persistent growth in demand for higher education from all demographic backgrounds and for institutions across the spectrum in the UK,” said Ms Curnock Cook, who added there were also “encouraging patterns of demand from mature and disadvantaged students”.
Groups across the sector welcomed the figures, although the Russell Group also warned about a continuing fall in applicants for European and non-European languages.
University Alliance said the figures “vindicated” the decision to lift the cap on student numbers. However, chief executive Libby Hackett said it now became “even more important that we look at the long-term sustainability” of the system.
Although 15 January is the “equal consideration” deadline, students can still apply for higher education courses starting in autumn 2014 up until 30 June, with those received later going into clearing.