Number of university students at record level

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The Independent Online

More students are entering university than ever before despite concerns that fear of debt would dissuade them.

More students are entering university than ever before despite concerns that fear of debt would dissuade them.

Final details of the number of entrants accepted for degree courses last autumn, given in figures released today, show a 2.8 per cent rise on 2001 – bringing the total to a record high of 368,115.

The figures are a welcome lift for ministers on the eve of publication of their long- awaited blueprint on the future of higher education – which is expected to recommend big rises in student fees.

The rise in numbers is highest among mature students, with a 6.6 per cent increase in those over the age of 21. The number of applicants in England under 21 increased by only 1 per cent.

Even this figure is in line with the Government reaching its target of 50 per cent of youngsters taking higher education degree courses by the end of the decade. Ministers have said that it needs just a 1 per cent increase in the overall figure every year to achieve this. Margaret Hodge, the minister for Higher Education, welcomed the figures, saying: "It is good for individuals and the economy that more people are going into higher education."

The figures do not yet give a breakdown of the social class of applicants so they are unable to show whether the Government's aim of widening participation in higher education among youngsters from deprived backgrounds is being met.

A breakdown of the most popular courses shows the biggest increase has been in education courses – up 17.3 per cent, followed by media studies (16.4 per cent), politics (14.4 per cent) and nursing (13.2 per cent). The figures were welcomed by ministers as good news for their recruitment drives in health and education.

But those showing the biggest fall include maths courses (down 4.1 per cent), which highlights the growing shortage of maths teachers.

Meanwhile, a government-funded study has concluded that attempts to widen university access to the poorest students will fail unless universities award places to candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds – even if they have worse A-level results than more privileged applicants.

Students who apply to university from low-achieving schools should be given lower offers than applicants from more successful institutions to widen access to higher education, urged the report, Fair Enough?, by Universities UK, which represents university vice-chancellors.

The study acknowledged that some people would regard the idea of giving lower offers to disadvantaged students as "an affront to concepts of fairness". It concluded: "Any system set up to identify potential among applicants from disadvantage groups will need to combine this with lower offer grade requirements."

The two-year study also recommended that university admissions tutors look favour-ably on candidates who could demonstrate they were well organised, able to work independently and have a real interest in their chosen subject although their predicted A-level grades might be too low to normally secure them an offer. The report was commissioned by the Department for Education in response to the case of Laura Spence, the comprehensive school pupil from Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear, rejected by Oxford.