The gap between the numbers of poor and rich teenagers going to university has narrowed significantly for the first time, according to research that will be published today.
The study, from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, shows the proportion of people from disadvantaged areas going to university has risen by 27 per cent since 2005 compared with just 4 per cent among the best-off young people.
Nearly one in five young people (19 per cent) from the poorest homes now go to university – compared with just 15 per cent five years ago.
However, a comparison with 15 years ago – when efforts to widen participation were in their infancy – reveals the overall gap has widened by one percentage point to 38 per cent.
The gap between the two grew significantly in the decade between 1995 and 2005 – and only since then has it shown signs of narrowing, from 40 percentage points to 38.
John Selby, director of education and participation at HEFCE, called the latest figures "significant".
"They show a substantial increase in the participation rate of those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds with, recently, a narrowing of the gap between them and those from the most advantaged backgrounds," he added.
The research shows that the introduction of top-up fees of £3,200 a year – far from deterring working-class students – has led to more applying, almost certainly as a result of the increased grants available to them under the new system.
However, there was also speculation that the reason the percentage of people from better-off homes was not climbing as fast may be a fear of accumulating debt from having to pay the fees.
Last night university lecturers and vice-chancellors urged caution over the figures – warning that cuts of £900m in funding in this year's budgets could jeopardise the advance.
Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, the body which represents vice-chancellors, said: "We cannot be complacent. Although the situation has improved, there is still more that can be done.
"It remains the case that young people from disadvantaged areas have a one in five chance of progressing to higher education compared to one in two from the most advantaged neighbourhoods."
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of million+, the university think-tank, added: "An obvious consequence of a shortage of funded places in 2010 is that those students who stand most to gain from going to university are in danger of losing out.
"As universities juggle the applications of candidates with very high grades against those who present with lower pre-entry qualifications but for whom university and a degree will vastly improve their life chances, today's good news could become tomorrow's lost opportunity."
Meanwhile, today's figures also show that the percentage of young men going to university has risen in the past five years for the first time in two decades, from 29 per cent to 32 per cent.
However, they still lag dramatically behind women, 40 per cent of whom go to university.
There would need to be an extra 270,000 men at university for the participation rate between the sexes to have remained the same for the past two decades.
Meanwhile, the Student Loans company announced yesterday that it plans to make 150 staff redundant. The company, which has been under fire for failing to make payments to students on time, said the job losses would not affect frontline staff in the processing of applications.
27 per cent
... more pupils from disadvantaged areas are going to university now than in 2005Reuse content