More school pupils say they aspire to go to university, a survey shows
Fifty thousand more people have applied for university places in the UK this year, increasing fears that many will not get on a degree course.
Figures just released by the admissions body Ucas show applications are up by 9.7% on this time last year.
The Conservatives accuse the government of "sleepwalking into a crisis", as more young people try to avoid the recession by studying.
Ministers say they are committed to expanding opportunities for the young.
The new figures show that so far 592,312 people have applied to start undergraduate courses this autumn - compared with 540,108 at this time last year (up 9.7%).
Among those living in England, the figure rose by 10.1% (from 390,358 to 429,734).
UK APPLICANTS BY AGE
Under 20: +6.7%
21 to 24: +17.2%
25 and over: +22%
The Ucas figures are a snapshot of the picture of university applications, but do suggest an upward trend.
The last figures released, in February, showed an 8% increase in applications year on year.
In times of recession, university and college applications generally rise.
The biggest increase was in applications from young people in European Union countries outside the UK .
This figure rose by 15.4% across all age groups, with the largest increase among those aged 20 and under (17.9%).
Earlier this year the Westminster government placed a cap of 10,000 on the number of extra student places it would fund this year, reduced from 15,000 because of a funding squeeze.
The Conservatives' spokesman on universities and skills, David Willetts, said: "Ministers are sleepwalking into a crisis in university applications.
"Yesterday, [Higher Education Minister] David Lammy told the House of Commons there was nothing to worry about and the Prime Minister keeps telling us he is offering more opportunities to young people.
"But today we have the hard evidence to show that tens of thousands of people who hoped to go on to higher education this year face a brick wall.
"Young people are becoming the biggest victims of this recession. The number of young people not in education, employment or training is already at record levels and now we are on course to have a record number of young people refused a university place."
There are reports that the government is working on a rescue plan, but officials are not commenting on that.
The government has a target to get 50% of young people experiencing higher education.
Higher Education Minister David Lammy said: "This government is committed to expanding opportunities for young people and supporting them through the recession.
"The UK will need more graduates to win the highly skilled jobs of the future so it is encouraging to see that so many young people want to go to university.
"There are record numbers of students currently in higher education - 300,000 more than in 1997. And this year we expect that there will be 40,000 more accepted applicants than just three years ago.
"Students who get the grades to meet their offer will secure a place at university this summer, but we will continue to work with the sector to support those who do not and to manage increased demand."
The National Union of Students (NUS) welcomed the rise in applications but said an urgent expansion of places was needed.
NUS president Wes Streeting said: "Unless there is an urgent expansion of places, universities will be unable to meet this demand. We are therefore calling on the government to take immediate action to increase student numbers for the coming year.
"Applicants of all ages are clearly making the correct assessment that it is better to invest now in their education and training."
Liberal Democrats' spokesman Stephen Williams said: "Record numbers of youngsters will be disappointed this summer when they get their grades and still can't get a place at university, particularly as ministers have botched the funding for the additional places they promised to offer.
"It is little wonder that so many school leavers want to carry on studying since, despite announcement after announcement promising them help, the government has left the vast majority facing a choice between that and the Jobcentre."
The rise in applications comes as employers that recruit graduates are taking fewer this year.
Meanwhile almost eight out of 10 secondary school pupils aim to go to university, a survey suggests.
Research for the Sutton Trust found 77% of those aged 11 to 16 thought it likely they would go on to higher education, up from 72% in 2008.