Record numbers of students enter university
Record numbers of UK students were accepted for full-time university courses this autumn, including more poorer students than ever before, says the Ucas admissions service.
This was a particularly "good year" to apply, says Ucas, with recruitment recovering from higher tuition fees.
Top universities were 70% more likely to give places to applicants with lower grades than two years before.
Ucas chief Mary Curnock Cook said fears over fees had proved "premature".
The figures, showing the final UK university admissions for 2013, show that recruitment has recovered from the impact of tuition fees rising in England to up to £9,000 per year.
"We can see that the dip in demand in 2012 was perhaps a pause for thought," said Ms Curnock Cook, as the figures showed a return to the long term trend for a rising number of students.
More places, lower grades
This expansion is likely to increase even further in the future, with the government announcing plans earlier this month to remove the cap in student numbers.
The highest level of entrants was recorded in 2013 with almost 496,000 students beginning full-time undergraduate courses.
It meant that young people across the UK were more likely to begin university than ever before. Within the UK, Northern Ireland had the highest proportion of 18-year-olds entering higher education, reaching a new record of 36.2%.
When students who began courses at the of age 19 were also included, it meant that 40% of young people in the UK had entered higher education by the age of 19.
The Ucas annual figures also show the high levels of acceptances, with 85% of people who applied in England finding a university place.
The most selective universities - described by Ucas as "high tariff" universities - accepted 10,000 more people than in 2012, an increase of almost 10%.
These top universities were offering more places to students with lower grades - with 17% of such places in England going to students not achieving ABB grades at A-level or their equivalent.
The report also highlights the unreliability of predicted grades. Among students predicted to get ABB grades at A-level only 30% eventually achieved those grades.
Dr Mark Corver, head of analysis for Ucas, said applicants were fortunate with their opportunities this year.
"They've had more offers, they've had more choice between offers. That's led to more people getting their first choice course and it's driven higher acceptance rates. The entry rates have reached new highs for young people," he said.
Closing the gap
The proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds also increased - despite fears that these youngsters would be particularly likely to be deterred by higher fees.
In England, disadvantaged youngsters were 70% more likely to go to university in 2013 than in 2004.
But within these poorer students there were big differences between ethnic groups.
Among young people who had been eligible for free school meals, white youngsters were the least likely to go to university, trailing behind their Asian or black counterparts.
These annual figures for the 2013 intake show that there is still a wide gender gap, with women a third more likely to go to university than men.
The National Union of Students welcomed the increased numbers of young undergraduates, but also warned of decreases in other parts of higher education.
"We must not forget that this report also only focuses on young people and doesn't explain why there has been a 40% decrease in part-time students and a 14% drop in the number of mature students going into higher education," said Rachel Wenstone, NUS vice president.
Nicola Dandridge, head of Universities UK, said: "Since the changes to tuition fees were introduced, our main concern has been that no-one is put off from going to university because of worries about money, in particular students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
"The fact that young English applicants from this group were more likely to enter higher education in 2013 than in 2012 is good news and shows that the work that universities are doing to widen participation is making a difference."
Universities Minister David Willetts welcomed that more people were able to have the "life-changing experience of university".
"The record proportions of people entering higher education, including the highest ever proportion of disadvantaged young people, show the benefits of going to university are understood."
Mr Willetts said that the plan to lift the cap on student numbers, announced in the Autumn Statement, was a response to this rising demand.