University applicants undeterred by fees

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Record numbers of students are seeking university places this autumn, raising the pressure on ministers to lift the current cap of £3,000 on top-up fees.

Figures published by Ucas, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, show an overall 6.4 per cent rise in applications.

It means 395,307 applicants trying to enter higher education in 2007, compared with 371,683 at this time last year. In England, where the top-up fees regime is in place, the rise is even higher - 7.1 per cent.

Yesterday's figures were welcomed by ministers and vice-chancellors. Bill Rammell, the Higher Education minister, said: "The critics of the new system are being proved emphatically wrong." But they are bound to raise pressure from university vice-chancellors to be able to charge above the £3,000 maximum when a cap put on the fee by ministers is lifted in 2009.

A poll of vice-chancellors indicated they would like a maximum of £10,000 a year charged for the most popular courses - such as law and medicine. Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial College London, has called for full-cost fees of £15,000 a year for some courses. The Russell Group, which represents the 20 elite research institutions in the UK, only dropped a demand that the original figure should be set at £5,000 a year when it was persuaded that it would not have been politically possible at that time.

Ministers insisted last night they would not consider changes until 2009 - by which time they would have the results of an independent inquiry evaluating the first three years of the new fees regime.

But Tony Blair is to pledge today more government cash aid, totalling £600m, to help universities raise more cash from private donors. Under the scheme, the Government will provide £1 for every £2 raised by universities over a three-year period. The aim is to promote a culture of giving in the UK similar to that which exists in the US - where top universities such as Harvard raise about £30m a year and have £15bn in endowments.

There was immediate criticism that this would lead to more help for the prestigious universities - such as Oxford and Cambridge - which would find it easier to raise cash.

A report from Cambridge University, published today, reveals that it has raised half of the £1bn it targeted for its 800th anniversary in 2012. In the past 12 months, it raised a record £108m. Alison Richard, the vice-chancellor, said: "Philanthropic support is an essential complement to the funding that we received from taxpayers and fees, and enables us to sustain our position as one of the world's great teaching and research universities."

Yesterday's record figures for student applications follows a dip last year - the first year in which top-up fees were introduced. They also show a rise in overseas applications. The numbers applying from outside the European Union has risen by 6.6 per cent to 23,570. Among the biggest rises were from Pakistan (19.1 per cent), India (13.8 per cent), the US (12.3 per cent) and Hong Kong (10.3 per cent). Among EU countries, big risers were Romania (up 200 per cent to 222) and Bulgaria (up 183.7 per cent to 400).

Ministers also welcomed a rise in the numbers opting for strategic subjects such as maths and science. Physics applications were up 12.2 per cent, chemistry 11.3 per cent, biology 6 per cent, maths 10 per cent and combined maths and computer science 15.8 per cent and civil engineering 10.3 per cent. There was also a boost to foreign languages with German up by 19.6 per cent and French by 6.8 per cent.