The number of applicants to UK universities has leapt almost 10 per cent, boosted by a sharp increase in older people seeking to ride out a difficult labour market.

The official figures immediately prompted warnings that tens of thousands of well-qualified teenagers would lose out on a place this year, because tight public finances had forced the government to rein in rises in university numbers.

“Applicants of all ages are clearly making the correct assessment that it is better to invest now in their education and training,” said Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students.

“We understand the current pressures on public finances, but the government must also make the right long-term decisions. It is surely better to bear the cost of increasing opportunities in education and training now than to shoulder the burden of long-term unemployment later.”

A sharp rise in the number of 18-year-olds, an increase in people with appropriate qualifications and rising levels of unemployment have triggered an unprecedented level of applications to university, according to Million+, a think-tank that campaigns for mass higher education. As a result, it said, more than 35,000 well-qualified students would not secure places this year.

The government is increasing university funding this year so that 10,000 more new places for UK and other EU undergraduates at English universities will be funded than in 2008.

However, this increase is only half the rise of the previous year. The much smaller 2009 rise was caused by an underestimate of the maintenance funding required for poor students.

Higher education observers say that, were it not for the dire public finances, the government would have found the money to keep the increase in line with previous years.

The shortage of public money has prompted ministers to threaten sanctions against universities if they exceed agreed quotas for student numbers. Admissions officers say that, as a result, they will be stricter about not admitting students who are close to meeting conditional offers for this autumn.

Applicant numbers for full-time undergraduate courses starting this autumn were up 9.7 per cent on the year by the end of June at 592,312, according to Ucas, the university and college admissions body. That included an 18.8 per cent increase in people at least 25 years old.

UK and other EU applicants to English universities rose 10.1 per cent to 487,356.

Applicants can still apply to university until September, but the figures cover the bulk of applications. Last year English universities accepted 357,074 UK and EU applicants through Ucas – the bulk of new full-time undergraduates.

David Lammy, universities minister, said: “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.”

Leeds Metropolitan University, one of a handful not to charge the maximum tuition fee level, has abandoned its policy because of a budget shortfall. It is to raise annual fees from £2,000 to £3,312 from the 2010-11 academic year after a four-year freeze.

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