The proportion of 18-year-olds applying to university has reached a record high while applications from 20 to 24-year-olds have declined, new figures have revealed.
According to data on applications received by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) by its January deadline, 37 per cent of English 18-year-olds have applied for higher education courses starting in September, up 1.5 percentage points on last year.
But an overall decline in the number of 18-year-olds in the UK, coupled with a 5 per cent decrease in the proportion of 20 to 24-year-olds applying, means the overall number of applicants to higher education remains fairly flat.
The news has led to renewed calls from school leaders for personal, social, health and economics education (PSHE) to be included as a statutory part of the curriculum to help teachers provide pupils with the soft skills needed for the transition.
So far, 593,720 people have applied to UK higher education courses in 2016, an increase of 0.2 per cent compared to the same time last year, although applications from England are down by one per cent on last year.
Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook (pictured) said the figures showed “further growth in demand” for higher education, but added: “the declining 18 year old population and a decrease in older applicants means the actual number of UK applicants available for universities to recruit remains flat”.
The figures show that young people from the least advantaged areas of the UK are now more likely to apply to higher education than ever before.
The gap in application rates from men and women in 2016 is also the highest on record. In England, women are 36 per cent more likely to apply to university, and 58 per cent more likely when both sexes are from disadvantaged backgrounds.
According to Ucas, January deadline applicants typically account for 85 per cent of all UK domiciled applicants and almost all (typically 97 per cent) of 18-year-old UK applicants.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said teachers had always supported pupils with Ucas applications, and were “adapting” to the fact that more pupils were going straight to university.
He said: “Rather than just the administrative support, often it is about preparing pupils mentally to make the jump to university and to living independently. Formerly many pupils took a year out to develop these soft skills, but now schools are providing this support.
“Having PSHE as a part of the curriculum could help develop these skills earlier, making the transition smoother for pupils. Schools must and will do what it takes to ensure that the barriers to higher education are levelled.”