New figures reveal a record demand for higher education courses in the UK, with the rate of disadvantaged students from England applying to university also at an all-time high.
Data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) shows that the number of applications to full-time undergraduate courses at university and other HE institutions for 2015-16 was up by 2 per cent on the same point last year, to 592,290.
However, Ucas said that although it is the highest number ever recorded at this stage, the increase is smaller than in recent years.
The figures, published today, also show that applications from students in England from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have increased from 18 per cent in 2010 to 21 per cent, closing the gap on the most advantaged.
But although there has been an increase the number of 18- and 19-year-old applicants, applications from older age groups have reduced.
The gender gap has also widened, with the difference in application rates between men and women now the highest on record.
In England the application rate of young women grew five times more than the rate for men, meaning that young women are now 36 per cent more likely to apply to university than young men.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, said: “Demand for UK higher education, notably from younger people and from EU countries, has continued to rise in 2015. It is heartening to see the gap between rich and poor continue to narrow.
“Nevertheless, demand has grown more slowly this year and has fallen for mature students. This perhaps reflects improved employment prospects in the UK.”
Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, welcomed the growth in the number of disadvantaged applicants. “Nevertheless, there is still a significant gap, particularly to the most selective universities, and a worrying dip this year in mature applicants,” he said.
"The decline in mature applicants comes after recent data confirmed a big drop in part-timers since the fees increase: mature and part-time students are almost 40 per cent of all students and their decline is a blow to efforts to increase our low level of social mobility.
“Today's data also confirms a widening gender gap that has been growing since the fees hike, which is particularly worrying for white working-class boys."
The government said the figures showed its approach to widening participation in HE was working.
Speaking at Kingston University today, business secretary Vince Cable is expected to say that the figures are “good news” and demonstrate the “significant headway” being made to break down barriers to higher education.
“There were many who said that the reform of student finance would discourage young people from going to university,” he will say. “The opposite has occurred: numbers have grown, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our reforms now also mean universities are well funded for the future.”
Universities minister Greg Clark said: “A degree from the UK is an excellent investment and our reforms are helping more people than ever go to university, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Today’s record figures show that people understand the value of higher education, helping them on the path to a rewarding and successful career.”