Rising numbers of would-be students have submitted applications to go to university this year, but men are still far less likely to apply than women, official figures show.
Young men are becoming a disadvantaged group when it comes to studying for a degree and urgent attention needs to be paid to the problem, according to Ucas.
Within the next decade, the gulf between the numbers of men and women going into higher education could eclipse the gap between the numbers of rich and poor students studying at university, Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook suggested.
Overall, university applications have increased by 4% compared with last year, Ucas figures show.
This is in spite of around a 1% fall in the population of 18-year-olds, the admissions service said.
But the numbers have yet to climb to the levels seen the year before tuition fees were trebled to a maximum of £9,000.
The data shows that 580,000 people from the UK and abroad had submitted applications by the January 15 deadline, compared with 558,820 last year. Applications from students who apply before this point are given equal consideration by universities.
By the same point in 2011, the year before the fee hike, 583,530 people had applied. Applications were at a record high that year.
By the January deadline in 2010, there had been 570,510 applications in total.
Across the UK, 489,940 people have applied for degree courses starting this autumn, up 3.3% on last year.
And in England alone, 408,300 people have now applied to start degree courses, up 3.5% on last year.
Ucas said that more than a third (35%) of 18-year-olds in England had applied to university this year - an unprecedented amount.
But the figures also show that young women are a third more likely to apply to higher education than young men.
Over 87,000 more women than men have already applied this year, the figures show.
Ms Curnock Cook said: "This analysis shows a remarkably persistent growth in demand for higher education from all demographic backgrounds and for institutions across the spectrum in the UK.
"Amid encouraging patterns of demand from mature and disadvantaged students, there remains a stubborn gap between male and female applicants which, on current trends, could eclipse the gap between rich and poor within a decade.
"Young men are becoming a disadvantaged group in terms of going to university and this underperformance needs urgent focus across the education sector."
The figures also suggest that rising numbers of poorer students are applying to university, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds in England now almost twice as likely to want to study for a degree than they were a decade ago.
But experts warned that there is still more to do.
Conor Ryan, director of research and communications at the Sutton Trust, said: "We welcome today's Ucas application statistics, particularly the narrowing of the gap between the least and most advantaged neighbourhoods.
"With a 2.5-fold gap still existing, there is of course more to do. Today's report shows that the gap between boys' and girls' applications from disadvantaged areas has widened, with young women from the most disadvantaged communities much more likely to apply to university than young men.
"There has been a welcome improvement also in mature applicant numbers, but their numbers have still to recover to 2011 levels."
Professor Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said: "Rates of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to higher education are higher than ever before. These figures show a continued trend over time, with the application rate for disadvantaged young people increasing every year for the last 10 years. Disadvantaged 18-year-olds are now nearly twice as likely to apply for higher education as their counterparts were 10 years ago."
He added: "Positive as they undoubtedly are, these figures should not disguise the wide participation gaps between the most and least advantaged. Young people from the most advantaged areas are still two-and-a-half times more likely to apply for higher education than those from areas where participation is low. This gap hinders efforts to increase social mobility and addressing it must remain a priority."
The figures also show that in Scotland 41,080 people had applied by January 15, up 2.8% on the same point last year, in Northern Ireland 19,550 had applied, down 0.2% and in Wales 21,010 had applied, up 2.8%.
Business Secretary Vince Cable said: "It's clear that young people understand that investing in a degree is an investment for their future. New students do not pay fees upfront, there is more financial support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds and everyone will make lower loan repayments once they are in well paid jobs."
Dr Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading universities, said: "More than half a million potential students have rightly recognised the benefits of going to university. This is the second highest number of applications of all time and this year applications have increased by 4% despite the continuing fall in 18-year-olds.
"Prospective students know a good degree remains a sound investment for the vast majority. Ten of the top 30 universities in the world, as ranked by employers, are Russell Group universities.
"It is good news that applications for science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects are increasing but we are, however, worried by the continuing drop in applicants for both European and non-European languages. We need language graduates to meet the needs of our economy and society."
Libby Hackett, chief executive of University Alliance, said: "The Government's decision to lift the cap on ambition has been vindicated with this 4% rise in applications. The growth in applications shows that despite a minority questioning the value of a degree, individuals still see it as a smart choice to ensuring their resilience and success in an increasingly competitive world."