Record numbers of students have applied to start university this autumn – the last year before rises in tuition fees could see them paying as much as £9,000 a year for their courses.
The figures from UCAS, the admissions service, show that so far 583,501 people have applied, an increase of 28,062 on the same time last year.
The figures suggest that thousands are planning to give up gap years to avoid paying higher fees. Among under 19-year-olds, the rise in applicants was 10.2 per cent, compared to 5.1 per cent overall.
Gareth Thomas, Labour's universities spokesman, said the rise was "the inevitable result of the Government's unfair and unnecessary decisions to treble fees and cut student places by 10,000". Labour had planned to increase the number of places by 20,000 last year but the Coalition Government only put them up by 10,000.
David Willetts, Universities minister, said the extra places would allow "more students than ever before to go to an English university in 2011".