The first data for five years, issued this week by the University and Colleges Admissions System, showed applications by UK-based Asian students made up almost 10 per cent of the total. This is roughly 50 per cent higher than the proportion of Asian pupils at secondary school.
The fastest growth was among the Bangladeshi population, whose applications have risen by more than 10 per cent since 1994.
Even among Indians, the largest Asian group and the highest achieving of all ethnic groups including whites, applications were up by 2.4 per cent.
Among all black students, applications remained static at around one in 30. Black Caribbeans saw a decline of almost 2 per cent. Black Africans were up 0.2 per cent while other black applicants rose by 1.6 per cent.
White students wishing to go to university fell slightly as did the total number of all UK applicants.
The figures illuminate the findings of the Youth Cohort Study, which tracks the experiences of UK 16 and 18-year-olds and reported in March that Indian 18-year-olds were almost four times more likely to be in higher education than blacks.
Only 11 per cent of black 18-year-olds were at university, compared to 16 per cent of Bangladeshi and Pakistani youths, 39 per cent of Indians and 23 per cent of whites.
Herman Ousley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, said the problem of definitions - 20,000 applicants declined to give their ethnic origin - made hard conclusions difficult.
But the rise among Asian applicants was to be celebrated, while the continuing under-representation of black students caused deep concern. "There are problems we need to look at in detail, in particular whether the message that education is a way out of poverty is getting through," he said.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has made a priority of widening access to higher education and said it recognised the scale of the challenge. The committee is encouraging universities to become partners with schools that do not traditionally send students on to university.
But the figures do not show the whole picture, a committee spokeswoman said. Many students from under-represented groups arrive via access courses, bypassing UCAS.