Some 2.8 per cent more students entered higher education last autumn compared with the previous year, according to data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
A total of 368,115 applicants were accepted to full-time undergraduate courses, 10,074 more than in autumn 2001. The biggest rise was in mature students aged between 21 and 24 years, up 8.7 per cent, followed by mature students aged over 25, up 4.3 per cent. The number of accepted applicants aged under 21 years rose by 1.8 per cent.
The growth reveals the extent to which the government is relying on part-time students to meet its manifesto pledge to get half of young people to experience higher education by 2010. To hit that target, there would need to be an average of ,800 more students a year for nine years - meaning that twice as many part-time students as full-time ones would have needed to enrol to meet this year's target.
Student support systems seem to be key to boosting enrolments. The biggest rise was in Wales. Drawn by new grants, enrolments rose by 3.9 per cent, compared with 1.6 per cent for Scotland, which saw a corresponding rise when upfront tuition fees were abolished for Scottish students studying in Scotland.
It is also getting easier to win a university place, the data show. Just 1.7 per cent more people applied for higher education while 2.8 per cent more people gained a place. The number of applicants aged 21 to 24 years saw the biggest increase, 7.3 per cent, followed by students aged over 25 years, up 2.7 per cent.