The drive to widen participation is recovering from the blow it received in 1998, when tuition fees were introduced and maintenance grants were halved, to be abolished the next year.
The recovery was strongest in the lowest, unskilled social class, which had seen a 5.9 per cent slump in successful applicants for degree courses in 1998. In 1999, the proportion of degree students coming from this social class was up by 3.6 per cent, according to figures released this week by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Between 1994 and 1999, the number of successful applicants coming from partly skilled and unskilled backgrounds increased by 25 per cent and 22 per cent respectively. Total applications were up by 21 per cent over the same period.
The figures show, however, that much remains to be done to widen participation by under-represented groups.
In 1999, accepted applicants from the three highest social classes - professional, intermediate and skilled non-manual - accounted for 64 per cent of undergraduates. Those from the three lowest social classes - skilled manual, partly-skilled and unskilled - accounted for just 24 per cent. The social classes of the remaining 12 per cent were unknown.