UCAS's research shows that almost every 18-year-old with A-levels who applied this year got into higher education / Getty Images

Increase is due to thousands of A-level students with lower grades than previous years being snapped up for places

Record numbers of students enrolled at UK universities this autumn - thanks to thousands of A-level students with lower grades than previous years being snapped up for places, it emerged on Thursday.

Figures show that 495, 596 students were accepted on to courses this year - higher even than the previous record two years ago when there was a stampede to get into university before tuition fees were tripled to £9,000 a year.

A breakdown of the figures from UCAS, the universities and colleges admissions service, however, showed that the biggest increase came from students with lower grades at A-level.

Acceptances amongst students with three B grades at A-level or less went up by 2.1 percentage points while the proportion of 18-year-olds going to English universities with at least an A and two B grades actually fell by one per cent.

Whilst the biggest increase in students with lower grades was amongst the least selective universities, their numbers also grew amongst the most selective institutions - which have seen the number of students with less than an A and two B grades go up by 70 per cent in two years.

What has happened is that many have taken advantage of the Government’s offer to them to expand (places at selective universities have increased by 10 per cent) so long as they recruited students with top grade passes.  This has left a corresponding number of places available lower down the line.

Mark Corver, head of analysis and research at UCAS, said of the figures: “Young people in the population are becoming more likely than ever to go into higher education.”

The research shows that almost every 18-year-old with A-levels who applied this year got in.

Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of UCAS, added: “Predictions of a reduced appetite for higher education following the rise in tuition fees were premature.”
The findings may embolden those vice-chancellors like Professor Andrew Hamilton of Oxford University calling for the £9,000 ceiling on fees to be lifted - although it is unlikely any political party will agree before the 2015 election.

Thursday’s analysis also showed 50,000 more women were recruited than men.  That means women are a third more likely than men to opt for university and 45 per cent more likely amongst students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In addition, white pupils are the least likely ethnic group - at 25 per cent - to go to university.  The highest participation rate is amongst the Chinese at 50 per cent while the black community has seen the biggest increase in participation - up 11 per cent on last year and 70 per cent since 2006.

The report shows there is still a wide disparity between the acceptance of disadvantaged students on to courses at highly selective universities and better off students - although poor young people are now 10 per cent likely to enter elite universities than last year.  Compared to a decade ago, disadvantaged 18-year-olds are 70 per cent more likely to enter higher education.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK - the body which represents vice-chancellors, said: “It is excellent to see that 2013 has seen the highest ever number of students accepted into higher education following the dip in demand in 2012.  This year there was not only a 6.6 per cent increase on 2012 but also a 0.7 per cent increase on 2011.”

However, Rachel Wenstone, vice-president of the National Union of Students, said: “With more than a million young people unemployed in the UK, some may feel like their options are somewhat limited and that choosing a situation which involves huge debt is the only way to enhance their employment options.”