Number of middle-class university applicants falls

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A HIGHER proportion of students from low-income families has applied to university this year, a study revealed yesterday. And the percentage of applicants from high-income households has fallen, according to the analysis of more than 330,000 applications by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas).

The rise in applications among some low-income groups is small - less than 1 per cent. Individuals from wealthy backgrounds are 12 times more likely to go to university than those from poor ones. Ministers are offering universities financial incentives to take more students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Tony Higgins, chief executive of Ucas, said: "This is the first study of its kind ever carried out by Ucas and it seems to indicate that this year people from less well-off backgrounds are more likely to consider higher education. Lower income families are still woefully under- represented in higher education, but if this study marks the beginning of a trend then we will start to see real changes in the social make up of our student population."

The survey divided applicants into 12 lifestyle groups using the Mosaic system, which assesses postcodes using 86 socio-economic factors. While applications from the four higher-income groups containing professional and well-off business people are down slightly, those from students living in low-rise council houses, "Victorian low status" homes, "town houses and flats" and "mortgaged families" show a small increase.

The latest Ucas figures show that the total number of university applicants is down by 1.7 per cent. There are more under-21s applying but the number of mature students continues to fall after the Government's decision to introduce tuition fees. Applications for four-year secondary teaching degree courses have slumped by 20 per cent. In primary teaching the drop is 10.9 per cent.

The figures are in sharp contrast to those highlighted by the Prime Minister on Monday. Mr Blair said that maths and science recruitment for one-year postgraduate degree courses had risen by up to 37 per cent, after the Government offered pounds 5,000 "golden hellos".

Physics and chemistry continue to fall, with decreases of about 9 per cent. However, applications for nursing, which were made before the new pay structure for the profession was announced, are up by 8.1 per cent. Computer-based degree courses continue to flourish - up 19 per cent. The announcement of new places to study medicine came too late to influence this year's applications, which show a decline of 7.3 per cent.

Baroness Blackstone, the minister for higher education, said: "These figures are further evidence that the critics are wrong. Young people, particularly from lower income backgrounds, have not been deterred from entering higher education by the reforms we have introduced. In addition to the strengthening demand from young people in the UK, the picture has improved with regard to both mature and overseas full-time applicants."

Demand for one-year postgraduate teaching courses was up by 1,000 on last year, she added.