The number of first-year undergraduates fell this year and overall first-degree numbers are static, according to official figures. This is in spite of a 3 per cent rise in total enrolments, including postgraduates.
The Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show that the number of first-year students - home, European Union and overseas - enrolling on full and part-time first-degree courses fell by 2,900 between last year and this academic year, a drop of 1 per cent to 353,800. Since 1996-97 they have fallen by nearly 5 per cent.
The number of home first-year students on first-degree courses also fell by 1 per cent to 315,500 compared with 317,900 in 1999-2000. Numbers are down by just over 5 per cent since 1996-97.
Total first-degree enrolments - home, EU and overseas, full and part-time in all years - are almost static. They were up by 1,800 between last year and the current academic year, an increase of under 0.2 per cent to fractionally over 1 million. Total numbers have dropped from 1,048,100 in 1996-97.
The number of home students in all years enrolled on full-time first-degree courses is also near standstill, having increased by 0.3 per cent to 818,700 this year. Since 1996-97 they have risen by 29,400 or nearly 4 per cent.
Ministers have welcomed the growth of total higher education enrolments between 1999-2000 and 2000-01. These comprise home, EU and overseas, full and part-time and include postgraduates and other undergraduates in all years. These are up by more than 45,000 on last year to 1,802,500. Since 1996-97, total numbers have risen by 143,000 or by nearly 9 per cent.
Higher education minister Baroness Blackstone said: "The figures show we are meeting our pledge to expand higher education and create opportunities for qualified people to go to university."
But figures obtained by The THES from the Department for Education and Employment cast doubt on whether the expansion at first-degree and sub-degree levels is fast enough to meet stated government expansion targets.
Institutions were told in 1998 to recruit an extra 100,000 students between 1998-99 and 2001-02. Much of the expansion was expected to be at sub-degree level in further education colleges. Annual targeted growth was set at 36,000 more students in 1999-2000, rising to 61,000 in 2000-01 and then to 100,000 in 2001-02.
The additional DFEE figures reveal that the number of full and part-time home undergraduates (first degree and other undergraduates) in higher and further education institutions, in all years, grew by only 8,990 between 1998-99 and 1999-2000 - just under a tenth of the total targeted growth and a quarter of the annual target for 1999-2000.
A comparison with 2000-01 is impossible because the Hesa data do not contain higher education enrolment figures for further education colleges this academic year.
Tony Bruce, policy director of Universities UK, said: "The Hesa data demonstrate useful enrolments overall. The typical student is no longer the 18-year-old first-degree one. All universities are developing markets in postgraduate and sub-degree areas where extra numbers have been focused."