University applications up by 2.8%
University applications are higher than last year, but have not recovered to levels before the hike in tuition fees, says the Ucas admissions service.
The application figures, up to the 15 January deadline, show an increase of 2.8% on last year for applicants from the UK for undergraduate courses.
An overall increase of 3.5% was boosted by a recovery in overseas students.
"This is an encouraging report, with no double-dip for applications," says Ucas chief Mary Curnock Cook.
There has been close attention paid to the university application figures to see the impact of the introduction of tuition fees.
Competing for students
Last year's intake - the first facing fees of up to £9,000 per year - went down sharply, but it remained uncertain whether this would be a temporary decline, before a return to an upward trend.
These latest figures suggest that the downward trend has stopped - but there are only limited signs of a return to a growth in applications.
"This modest improvement in applications is welcome but no-one should be under any illusions - this is not a bounce-back," said, Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group.
Million, representing new universities, highlighted that these current figures remain below 2011 and 2010.
But universities, facing a more competitive market for students, will be relieved that the further declines suggested by figures from before Christmas seem to have been reversed. Applications had been running at a level 8% below last year.
There have been 559,000 applications so far - up by about 19,000 on last year.
There were differences in applications within the UK - there were increases of 7% in Northern Ireland, 3% in England, 2% in Scotland and a fall of 2% in Wales.
Below the surface of these averages there are further indications of volatility.
There are individual universities reporting substantial increases in applications.
The University of Surrey says applications have risen by 38% compared with last year - with particularly high demand for chemical engineering, chemistry, physics, biosciences, business, economics, English, law and politics.
But this suggests that applications will still be falling in other institutions.
There were thousands of empty places last year - and universities have said that as well as wanting to attract applications there have been challenges in getting applicants to take up places.
The market in places is going to become even more fluid this summer - with no limit on places to be offered to students with ABB grades at A-level or their equivalents.
The figures also show that despite widespread fears about overseas students being deterred by visa regulations, there has been an increase in almost 10% in applications from students outside the EU.
The Russell Group of leading universities welcomed the figures as a substantial improvement.
"This is the third highest number of applications of all time and there are still many more students applying for university than there are places available," said the group's director, Wendy Piatt.
"This is positive news and demonstrates that higher education is still an excellent investment," said Alex Bols, executive director of the 1994 Group of research intensive universities.
Andy Westwood, head of the Guild HE group of universities, "It is interesting to see that the additional 3.5% seems to be largely driven by 18 and 19 year olds despite the demographic dip in the overall cohort size."
But Sally Hunt, leader of the UCU lecturers' union, warned: "It would be a real shame if ministers tried to use today's minimal rise as vindication for their punitive polices, when a quick look behind the figures gives a much more worrying picture."
Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, said: "Despite positive signs that overall applications have begun to recover after a huge dip last year, there must be no complacency about the impact of the coalition's decision to shift the balance of higher education funding onto students."
Universities Minister David Willetts said the rise in applications showed the success of changes to higher education funding.
"There are no financial barriers to higher education. Our reforms ensure well-funded universities while avoiding large cuts to student places or in the money available for teaching," he said.