However, numbers were still down on those for the year before, suggesting that demand for places may be levelling off. Competition for places will remain stiff because the number of 18-year-olds has started to rise.
Ministers froze the number of student places in November 1995 after nearly a decade of rapid expansion. Sir Ron Dearing's review of higher education is at present considering how and if student numbers should continue to grow.
The figures show that 347,037 applications for places this autumn had been received by the closing date of 15 December, an increase of just 0.9 per cent on last year but a fall of 0.7 per cent compared with the previous year. Last year's drop was the first since the Government sanctioned the expansion of higher education 10 years ago.
A spokesman for the committee of vice-chancellors said they were concerned that worries about financial hardship were putting off some applicants. "But we are pleased that demand has remained as buoyant as it has, despite this. Pressure on places continues to grow," he added.
Among individual subjects this year, applications for engineering courses decreased sharply, particularly electrical engineering, down 14 per cent and civil engineering, down 11 per cent. Computer science, by contrast, was up by 13.6 per cent. Maths applications were down by 3 per cent, but those for physics rose by 8 per cent. Applications for teacher training courses fell by 12 per cent.
More than 53 per cent of applicants are women. Asians form 9 per cent of the total and blacks 3 per cent.
The figures include adjustments for the addition of new courses. Tony Higgins, UCAS chief executive, said: "Even allowing for the difficulty of comparing this year's figures and last year's, there does seem to be an increase in demand for higher education ... "Reuse content