More poor teenagers apply for uni
Rising numbers of poorer teenagers are planning to go to university, but they are still half as likely to apply as their richer peers, new figures suggests.
There is also an increased demand for higher education this year among youngsters from all ethnic backgrounds.
The statistics, published by university admissions service Ucas, show the proportions of 18-year-olds in England applying to start degree courses this year, based on their social and ethnic background.
Pupils on free school meals (FSM) - a key measure of poverty - were 8% more likely to submit an application in 2014, compared with last year.
In total, just under a fifth (18%) of these poorer teenagers applied this year, a new record, according to the Ucas statistics.
But this also means they are still much less likely to be planning to go to university than their better-off peers.
The data shows that application rates for other pupils increased to 37% this year - the highest level ever recorded.
"Around one in eight English pupils receive free school meals and their application rate at age 18 to higher education is around half that of other pupils," a Ucas analysis note says.
The figures also show that women are more likely to apply to university than men, regardless of whether they received free dinners or not, but the difference between the genders is bigger for the FSM group.
This year, 21% of young women on FSM applied to university, compared with 14% of young men receiving the meals.
Among those who did not get free dinners, the application rate for girls was 42% and for boys it was 32%.
Separate Ucas data reveals that the application rates for all ethnic groups rose in 2014, but there are wide variations between pupils of different backgrounds.
Students from a Chinese background are most likely to want to study for a degree, with around 61% submitting an application this year.
At the other end of the scale, white teenagers are the least likely to be planning to go university, with less than a third (31%) applying this year.
"Application rates for all groups are higher in 2014 than in 2006 with the largest increase being for the Black ethnic group (from 23.6% to 39%)," a second Ucas note says.
Dr Lee Elliot Major, director of policy and development at the Sutton Trust, said: " It is good that the numbers of disadvantaged students applying to university are growing, and the gap with other students has narrowed a little. But there is still a significant gap - particularly pronounced with boys - and other data show the gap to be much wider at our most prestigious universities in both applications and entry.
"It is vital that schools continue to improve exam performance for disadvantaged pupils and that outreach work and access programmes, including summer schools, continue to engage with those from less privileged backgrounds from an early stage."
A Business Department spokesman said: "This data confirms that the proportion of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds applying to university has reached its highest level ever.
"The Government is committed to providing access to all students irrespective of background. The national strategy for access and student success that we launched earlier this year will help to ensure equal opportunity to enter higher education institutions."
Professor Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said: "The upwards application trends are good news, but 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, and the country is missing out on a pool of potentially excellent graduates who could be enriching our economy and society.
"Earlier, Offa (Office for Fair Access) published a report showing that universities and colleges will be increasing their outreach work over the next few years, encouraging people from under-represented groups to aspire to university and supporting them to improve their academic attainment.
"They will be investing a predicted £145.7 million in outreach activity under their 2015-16 access agreements. They have also set themselves 133 targets relating to ethnicity, including some that specifically concern white students."
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of vice-chancellors' group Universities UK, said: "It is encouraging that demand for higher education has risen among all ethnic groups in English schools this year.
"It is good to see that application rates from free school meal pupils have [also] risen to record levels.
"Universities have done good work in recent years to help improve access to universities. However, there is still more work to be done.
"It remains the case that applicants living in the most advantaged areas are still three times more likely to apply to higher education than those living in the most disadvantaged areas."