Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, said the statistics were “encouraging” because there had been no double-dip for applications.
“The 2 per cent rise in the number of 18 year old applicants and the 10.5 per cent increase in 19 year olds is against a headwind of demographic change that has left the 18 year old group some 60,000 smaller than in 2009,” she said.
“The significant increase in 19-year-olds applying may be indicating that some young people delayed their decisions about higher education after leaving school last year,” she added.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, also welcomed the increase in applications from younger students.
For [18-year-olds], application rates are at near record levels,” she said.
“It is also good to see that the rate of application for 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas have increased and the new tuition fees system does not appear to have put them off applying.
“For this group in England, the rate has risen by around 1 percentage point compared to 2012.”
Alex Bols, executive director of the 1994 Group, which represents small research-intensive universities, was also heartened by the news.
“It shows that the message that university is still affordable with the new loans system is beginning to be understood,” he said.
However, Pam Tatlow, chief Executive of million+, which represents post-1992 universities, insisted more work was needed to encourage applications from potential mature students.
“This modest improvement in applications is welcome but no-one should be under any illusions – this is not a bounce-back,” she said.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, added: “Today’s figures are a real body blow for anyone who does not think higher fees are turning some people away from university.
“Historical data suggests there should have been a considerable increase in the number of applications this year, but that simply is not the case.”
Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, also warned that demand were only just recovering after a “huge dip” last year.
“There must be no complacency about the impact of the coalition’s decision to shift the balance of higher education funding onto students.”
There was also concern that demand for language courses fell for the second year in a row – down by 6.1 per cent for European languages and 6.7 per cent for non-European languages.
“The drop in number of applications in students studying languages – on top of recent year-on-year decreases – is becoming ever more alarming,” said Paul Webley, director of SOAS, University of London.