The admissions service statistics show 236,350 school leavers - 40% in total - had applied by this year's deadline of 30 June - 3,970 more than in 2018.
This comes as a government review recommended cutting tuition fees in England from £9,250 to £7,500. However, the number of 18-year-olds in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland applying for degree places has fallen. In Northern Ireland, where 47% of 18-year-olds applied, there were 530 fewer applications from school leavers. There were 610 fewer application in Scotland, where 33% of youngsters put in an application for university. In Wales, where 33% of school leavers applied, there were 220 fewer applications than last year. Across the UK as a whole, 275,520 young people have applied to university this year - up from 272,910 at the same point in 2018, but down from 278,130 in 2017.
The figures also show that there are record numbers of black, Asian and mixed race 18-year-old applicants, while the number of white applicants continues to fall. Despite uncertainty over Brexit, the number of applicants, across all age groups, from the European Union has risen by 540 from 50,120 in 2018 to 50,660 this year. The Ucas figures also show a record number of applicants from outside the EU applying to UK universities - 81,340 students have applied to study in the UK, an increase of 8%. Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said the global appeal of UK higher education had "never been clearer".
"With clearing now open, there's plenty of choice for everyone at the end of the year. The post-qualification application route is available as a plan A for many, with over 17,500 using it to apply with results in hand last year. "There are opportunities for a new direction on over 30,000 courses at ucas.com, for anyone who's already applied and now wants to change their mind, as we've streamlined the process for those reconsidering their original choices." Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said it was "very good news" that 18-year-olds in England were more likely than ever before to apply to university.
"Employer demand for graduates continues to rise - educating more people of all ages at university will grow the economy faster, by increasing productivity, competitiveness, and innovation. Growing the number of graduates will enhance social mobility. "Our universities have a well-deserved global reputation for high-quality teaching, learning and research, delivered by talented staff, while students report rising levels of satisfaction with their courses." England's universities minister Chris Skidmore said it was "fantastic" to see record rates of 18-year-olds applying to university, "along with increasing numbers of applications from international students too".
"These figures show we are making good progress in our ambition to open up world-leading higher education to anyone who has the potential to benefit from it, and I'm confident that we can go even further."