The number of student applications made to universities has risen again this year, but official figures reveal that men are still far less likely to apply than women.
According to Ucas, young men are becoming a disadvantaged group when it comes to studying for a degree. Within the next decade, the gulf between the numbers of men and women going into higher education could eclipse the gap between the numbers of rich and poor students studying at university, Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook suggested.
Overall, university applications have increased by four per cent compared with last year. This is in spite of around a one per cent fall in the population of 18-year-olds, the admissions service said.
The data shows that 580,000 people from the UK and abroad had submitted applications by the January 15 deadline, compared with 558,820 last year. Applications from students who apply before this point are given equal consideration by universities.
The numbers have yet to climb to the levels seen the year before tuition fees were trebled to a maximum of £9,000. By the same point in 2011, the year before the fee hike, 583,530 people had applied - a record high.
Across the UK, 489,940 people have applied for degree courses starting this autumn, up 3.3 per cent on last year. In England, 408,300 people have applied to start degree courses, up 3.5 per cent on last year.
Ucas said that more than a third (35 per cent) of 18-year-olds in England had applied to university this year. However, the figures also show that young women are a third more likely to apply to higher education than young men. Over 87,000 more women than men have already applied this year.
Ms Curnock Cook said: "This analysis shows a remarkably persistent growth in demand for higher education from all demographic backgrounds and for institutions across the spectrum in the UK.
"Amid encouraging patterns of demand from mature and disadvantaged students, there remains a stubborn gap between male and female applicants which, on current trends, could eclipse the gap between rich and poor within a decade.
"Young men are becoming a disadvantaged group in terms of going to university and this underperformance needs urgent focus across the education sector."
The figures also suggest that rising numbers of poorer students are applying to university, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds in England now almost twice as likely to want to study for a degree than they were a decade ago.
Responding to the Ucas figures, Professor Les Ebdon, director of Fair Access to Higher Education, said: "These figures show a continued trend over time, with the application rate for disadvantaged young people increasing every year for the last 10 years. Disadvantaged 18-year-olds are now nearly twice as likely to apply for higher education as their counterparts were 10 years ago."
He added: "Positive as they undoubtedly are, these figures should not disguise the wide participation gaps between the most and least advantaged. Young people from the most advantaged areas are still two-and-a-half times more likely to apply for higher education than those from areas where participation is low. This gap hinders efforts to increase social mobility and addressing it must remain a priority."