A growing number of UK universities are targeting the recruitment of white students in the wake of evidence showing they are the least likely ethnic group to apply go on to higher education.

Figures released yesterday by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) showed that the gap in applications for this autumn between whites and other ethnic groups is increasing.

They show 61 per cent of Chinese students applying to universities compared to just 31 per cent of white teenagers. Figures for other ethnic groups show more Asian, black and mixed-race students applied this year than white teenagers, with 45 per cent, 39 per cent and 35 per cent applying respectively.

The figures come a year after the then universities minister David Willetts called for white working-class boys to be put on a par with other ethnic groups when it came to recruitment.

Now, according to the university access watchdog the Office for Fair Access (Offa), a number of universities are targeting white students for recruitment in the access agreements they sign with the watchdog – which are essential if they want to charge fees of more than £6,000 a year.

Les Ebdon, its director, said the universities had set themselves 133 different targets relating to ethnicity “including some that concern white students”. Overall, the UCAS figures showed application rates were rising for all ethnic groups and for students entitled to free school meals – where they have gone up by 8 per cent this year to the highest level ever.

However, Professor Ebdon said: “Stark gaps remain between application rates from young people from different backgrounds. “That means many talented, intelligent young people are missing out on the economic and social mobility that higher education helps to support.”

One university targeting white students, Leeds Metropolitan, says in its agreement signed with Offa that it will seek to “increase admissions of students from white working-class backgrounds, boys from Afro-Caribbean backgrounds and girls from Bangladeshi backgrounds.”

The University of East London says its target is “to recruit annually at least 200 white students from socio-economic groups with low participation in higher education”.

Meanwhile, figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed last summer’s graduates were more likely to be employed six months after getting their degrees than the previous year’s graduates – 70.7 per cent compared to 68.6 per cent – and less likely to be unemployed – 7.8 per cent compared to 9.1 per cent.  They were also less likely to be continuing with some form of study.