The number of UK students applying to university has risen by almost 3% compared with last year and has prompted mixed reactions as the figure is still down compared with before the tuition fee hike.

Latest Ucas statistics show that 475,587 people have applied to start degree courses this autumn, up 13,080 or 2.8% on the same point last year.

But the figures also show that applicant numbers have yet to recover to the levels seen in 2011, the year before tuition fees were trebled to a maximum of £9,000.

Compared with 2011, applications are down 6.1%, an analysis of the statistics shows. Applications from UK students are also down 4.8% on 2010, the Ucas figures reveal.

In England alone, 395,608 people have applied to start degree courses this autumn, up 3% on last year.

But application rates among English students are still 7.2% lower than they were in 2011, and 6.1% lower than in 2010, an analysis of the figures suggests.

The Ucas snapshot, which looks at how many people had applied to university by the January 15 deadline, shows that overall, applications from all students, both home and abroad, are up by 3.5% on 2012, with 558,898 people applying.

But this is down on 2011, when 583,546 students applied, and 2010, when there were 570,556 applications.

Last year saw a saw a sharp drop in the number of students applying to university amidst the introduction of the tuition fee hike - those starting degree courses last autumn were the first to pay fees of up to £9,000.

There were concerns ahead of Wednesday's figures that this drop in applications would continue.

The latest statistics suggest that the fall in applications has stalled, although the numbers have not yet recovered to 2011 or 2010 levels.

Prime minister David Cameron welcomed the figures. Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, Cameron said: "After all of the concerns that were expressed about the new way of paying for university finance reducing the number of students applying to university, the number of 18-year-olds has actually gone up.

"It is now level with where it was in 2011, which is higher than any year under the last Labour government."

Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook said the report was "encouraging, with no double-dip for applications".

There has also continued to be an improvement in applications from disadvantaged groups of students, she said.

"Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are 80% more likely to apply than a decade ago."

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 on to students.

"No student should be put off going to university because of misinformation about how they'll be asked to contribute, but the government cannot assume that recovering application levels tell the whole story, particularly when universities and students have found themselves so destabilised.

"The long-term impact on individual decision making of subjecting an entire generation to tens of thousands of pounds of pseudo-debt needs to be properly and fully explored in relation to both work and further study."

Curnock Cook also raised concerns about differences in applications from men and women.

"There remains a stubborn gap between application rates for young men and young women," she said.

"This is most pronounced for disadvantaged groups where young women are 50% more likely to apply than young men."

Taking into account changes in the population, the proportion of English 18-year-olds applying to university this year has risen by 1%, Ucas said.

A breakdown of applicant numbers shows that in Scotland applications are up 2%, in Northern Ireland they are up 7.1% and in Wales they are down 2.1%.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of university group million+, welcomed today's "modest" rise in applications, but warned that numbers had not yet recovered.

"This modest improvement in applications is welcome but no one should be under any illusions - this is not a bounce-back," she said.

"There is a long way to recovery and the government needs to do much more to promote the value of higher education.

"If we want to see a thriving university sector accessible across the board, and targeted not only at school leavers but to people in their 20s and 30s and older who want to take up the chance to broaden their life chances, then the government needs to throw its weight behind a national campaign promoting the life-long benefits of a university degree."

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, said: "There have been many predictions that university application figures would continue to fall, but today's figures show that this is not the case.

"It is good to see that overall applications are up compared to this time last year. It is clear that applicants are taking more time with their applications and applying right up to the 15 January deadline."

She added: "Universities UK will continue to monitor applications right up until the start of term. It is important to remember that these figures relate to applications only. We will have to wait until later in the year to find out final enrolment numbers."

Business secretary Vince Cable, who has responsibility for higher education, said: "These encouraging figures confound the critics and pessimists who were predicting that the new system of student financing would deter young people from applying.

"What is especially striking is that students from poorer backgrounds are not put off from applying. Today's figures - an all time high - clearly show they are not."

Cable insisted there is "clearly now a better understanding of the government's reforms".

The latest figures come amid a radical overhaul of the university system.

Under major changes, universities can now take on as many students as they like with at least two A grades and a B at A-level, and this is being extended this year to cover students with ABB.

There are also a certain amount of places set aside for institutions which keep fees to £7,500 or less. These are known as "core and margin" places.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) said: "Today's figures are a real body blow for anyone who does not think higher fees are turning some people away from university. Historical data suggests there should have been a considerable increase in the number of applications this year, but that simply is not the case. There are fewer people applying than back in 2010.

"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. What ministers need to be doing is giving considerable thought to the reasons why.

"We remain unconvinced that hiking up the cost of university during tough economic times will do little to encourage people to apply or help bolster our struggling economy."