A record high of one in five disadvantaged students were accepted on to university courses in 2021, new figures show.

Data from Ucas’ 2021 cycle figures shows that 20.9% of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) were accepted on to a university or college course last year, compared with 13% in 2012, while a “record” proportion of students from the most disadvantaged areas entered higher education last year.

But the gap in participation rates has widened between disadvantaged pupils and their peers over time.

In 2012, 27.5% of pupils not eligible for FSM were accepted on to a university course, more than double the proportion of FSM-eligible pupils, a gap of 14.5pp.

But in 2021, the proportion of non-disadvantaged students going to university remains around double that for FSM-eligible pupils, with 39.5% non-disadvantaged pupils accepted onto courses, a gap of 18.6pp.

In October last year, Ucas figures showed that a record number of 18-year-olds in the UK from the most disadvantaged backgrounds applied to the most selective universities and courses, with the number of disadvantaged students applying for a place on the most competitive higher education courses increasing by 8% compared with 2020.

Ucas figures released on Thursday showed that the number of students overall accepted onto courses rose by 1% since 2020, with 492,005 students accepted onto a course.

And 7% more UK 18-year-olds gained a place due to a rise in the number of 18-year-olds.

Overall, 38.3% of UK 18-year-olds gained a placed in 2021, increasing from 37% in 2020 and 34.1% in 2019).

The figures showed that acceptance to modern language courses have continued to decline, with 3,335 in 2021, compared with 3,825 in 2020 and 5,300 in 2012.

The numbers accepted onto medicine courses continued to rise, with 12,760 students accepted onto courses in 2021, compared with 12,425 in 2020.

Kevin Gilmartin, Post 16 Specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We are delighted to see the increase in the numbers of students being accepted at university, including a welcome rise in those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

He added that the increases had taken place despite the whole application cycle “taking place during the pandemic”, which reflected “the tremendous efforts” of headteachers in guiding students through the process.

Mr Gilmartin said the detail still needed to be explored as to how many disadvantaged students were being accepted at the most selective institutions, but that “overall the Ucas data seems a reason for celebration”.

Clare Marchant, chief executive at Ucas, said: “The 2021 cycle was the first admissions cycle that took place end to end during a global pandemic, and the tremendous hard work and resilience of students has been justly rewarded with the increase in placed applicants as well as those getting their first choice.

“Demand for UK HE remained strong in 2021 and we also saw a surge in interest in apprenticeship opportunities,” she said.

“Today’s data also shows a significant move away from unconditional offer making as universities have sought to provide greater stability to students and address concerns from schools and colleges,” she added.

Unconditional offer-making fell from 15.7% of all offers made in 2020 to 3.3% in 2021, as “conditional unconditional offers” were “all but eliminated within this cycle”, Ucas said.

Ms Marchant added that Ucas would also pursue a “reform of the personal statement and reference” as well as exploring reforms of students’ insurance choices.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “It is great to see that a record number of people are choosing higher education and that the highest ever proportion of people from the most disadvantaged areas entered university.

“The data on unconditional offers shows that universities have responded to recommendations in our Fair Admissions Review, aimed at building greater levels of transparency, fairness, and trust in the system, and worked hard to provide stability during the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

“To build on this progress, we are currently working with Ucas, universities and school leaders to develop a new admissions code of practice that will further improve fairness, deliver for students, and continue universities’ commitments to widening access and participation in higher education.”

John Blake, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, said: “I welcome these new figures showing more students from disadvantaged backgrounds were accepted on to higher education courses.

“It is crucial that universities work with those students to ensure that they stay the course and go on to successful careers after they graduate.”