More students got into universities and colleges this academic year than previous years, despite fewer applying.
The number of people who applied for a place in full-time higher education fell by 0.8 per cent on last year, yet the number who gained a place was up 1.5 per cent, according to figures published this week by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
The number of mature applicants fell by 6 per cent while those accepted was down 3 per cent. Applicants aged under 25 showed a small decline, yet the number accepted was up 2 per cent. Most of this growth was in the under-21s brackets.
The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals denied that the figures showed it was easier to get into university last year than previously. "Demand for higher education is high and outstrips supply. The figures reflect more opportunities for more students," said a spokeswoman.
Almost 20,000 extra full-time student places were allocated this year by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, more than 8,800 of which were at degree level. The extra places went to institutions that could demonstrate high-quality provision and a commitment to widening participation by under-represented groups.
It appears that these extra students did not apply through UCAS. Its figures showed the number of students who took up university and college places was up by 5,000, just a quarter of the number of new students. While most UCAS applicants apply for degree places, a significant minority apply for Higher National Diploma courses, according to a UCAS spokesman.
Business management remained the most popular subject, with more than 19,000 students enrolling on a degree course and 4,200 on a higher national diploma course this year. Numbers were up by 3.7 per cent.
The second most popular subject, computer science, saw 16 per cent more students enrol this year, one of the biggest increases.
A quarter more student nurses were recruited onto degree courses, bringing the total to more than 2,700. Just nine started full-time HND courses. Primary teaching also showed an increase.
There was mixed news for the physical sciences and engineering. More than 6 per cent fewer students opted to study physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering and civil engineering. Electrical engineering also proved less popular than in previous years. But demand for courses offering the sciences in combination with business or social studies was up 9.1 per cent.
Philip Diamond, higher education manager at the Institute of Physics, said: "It is always disappointing when numbers fall. It leaves smaller physics departments vulnerable and that is a concern. It may be that some institutions should think of diversifying into the combined courses."
The overseas student market remained relatively stable, with a recovery in the number of students coming from outside the European Union, up 2.1 per cent. The number of overseas students from within the EU was down by 2.3 per cent, including an 11 per cent fall in numbers from Eire, which recently abolished tuition fees.