By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter
University entrance is set to become more competitive
Applications to UK universities have soared by more than a fifth - increasing pressure on places for courses starting in the autumn.
Figures from the university admissions service, Ucas, showed a 22.9% increase in applications so far on last year.
It comes after university funding chiefs said there would be 6,000 fewer places for 2010-11 than in 2009-10.
Ucas predicted it would be a "very challenging and competitive" year for those wanting to go to university.
It is the fourth year running that full-time undergraduate applications have increased - with the rate of increase climbing higher.
The increase in applications comes at a time of greater pressure on funding - with universities facing £449m in cuts.
This includes cuts of nearly 5% of what had been expected in teaching budgets.
A number of universities are reported to have increased the expected grades they will require from would-be students.
Others are planning to cut courses as they struggle to cope.
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Worcester Professor David Green said many universities would take on extra students without funding their places and called on the government to scrap the fines it imposes on those that do.
Overall, 570,556 would-be students applied to universities in the UK this year. This was 106,389 or 22.9% more than in 2009.
As of January 22, the number of UK-based applicants, 499,451, was up 22.1%, while overseas applications rose 28.7% to 71,105. And more would-be students may yet apply.
University funding bodies will set out how many places will be available in the coming weeks.
Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook said: "'It is clear that once again we have seen a significant rise in applications which leaves us in no doubt that, as last year, this cycle will be very challenging and competitive for applicants and the higher education sector generally.
"There has been a steady increase year on year since 2007, but this year shows a sizeable leap in applications.
"There are some systemic changes affecting the figures but we could also conclude that the current economic situation is causing people to apply to higher education as a way of re-training to ready themselves for the job market once the economy picks up."
The figures show a 63% increase in the proportion of people over 25 trying to get to university on January last year
Ms Curnock Cook added that this year's figures included 46,012 applicants who had previously applied in 2009. They had either been unsuccessful in securing a place or had decided not to take up the places offered, she said.
The University and College Union, which represents teaching staff said thousands of students would have their dreams of a university education shattered by government funding cuts.
General Secretary Sally Hunt said: "The government is abandoning a generation who instead of benefiting from education will find themselves on the dole alongside sacked teaching staff."
Universities minister David Lammy insisted there is a record number of students in higher education.
'On the dole'
"Getting a place at university has always been, and should be, a competitive process. Not everyone gets the grades and some decide university is not for them," he said.
Professor Steve Smith, President of Universities UK, said there would be another "challenging admissions period" this summer for applicants and institutions.
"With this unprecedented demand for higher education courses, Universities UK believes that the case for continued public investment in higher education is overwhelming.
"This should take the form of the allocation of additional student numbers, but Universities UK stresses that these must be fully funded."
Professor Les Ebdon, chair of the new universities group, Million+, said the squeeze on places would mean many students from non-traditional backgrounds would miss out.
"A degree would vastly improve the life chances of young people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and it would significantly increase the opportunities of those people over 25, many of whom have been made redundant in the recession and who have applied in hugely increased numbers this year, as they try to retrain," he said.
'Tougher than ever'
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group of 20 leading universities, said competition for places would be tougher than ever.
"Most Russell Group institutions have the same number of places available as last year and are making the same number of offers but applications have risen in most cases, by between 3% and 18%," she said.
Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, said: "Given the state of youth unemployment and the long-term consequences of short-term cuts to investment in higher education, the government must urgently fund an expansion of places to ensure that those who have the ability to succeed are given the opportunity."
Paul Marshall, director of the 1994 Group of research-intensive universities, said the response to this record demand must not be further unfunded expansion.
This could leave universities unable to ensure the high quality experience that students rightly demand, he said.