By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter
Youngsters from poor backgrounds can feel excluded from universities
More of England's poorest youngsters are going to university, but the wealthiest are three times more likely to win a place, a report says.
Youngsters in the poorest areas are 30% more likely to go to university than they were five years ago, England's university funding agency Hefce said.
A fifth of the poorest youngsters go to university, up from an eighth in 2004. This compares to 57% of the richest.
Ministers said "record investment" was helping more people go to university.
The report by Hefce statisticians looks at trends in the university participation of 18 and 19-year-olds between 1994 and 2010.
It covers some major changes in higher education policy, including the introduction of tuition fees in September 1998, and their increase in September 2006 - when the requirement for them to be paid by students up front was ended.
Overall, the report found 36% of young people go to university today, compared to 30% in 1994-5.
It also compared participation rates of different social groups and discovered a "significant and sustained" increase in the share of youngsters from the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods going to university since 2004.
This grew from 15% to 19% over the period.
It compares to an increase of two percentage points, from 55% to 57%, for youngsters in the wealthiest fifth of neighbourhoods and represents a slight narrowing of the gap between income levels between 2004 and 2010.
However, the study also showed the gap between the richest and the poorest had widened slightly by one percentage point since 1994.
But Hefce statisticians pointed out youngsters from the richest areas were four times more likely to go to university than those from the poorest areas in 1994, compared to three times more likely today.
The director for education and participation at Hefce, John Selby, said the results were very significant.
More women go to university than men
"The main story from our point of view is that we have significantly increased opportunities in higher education across the whole spectrum.
"That has particularly been the case in the most socially-disadvantaged groups but the gap remains, it is still very large, and there is still a lot left to do," he added.
He surmised that the increase in poorer students was down to a combination of work on improving schools in disadvantaged areas, outreach work by universities and improved GCSE attainment rates.
He also warned that there was a risk that the cap on university places could have an impact on attempts to widen participation to poorer groups.
The report also found an increase in the participation rate of men over the past five years, including those in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
But statisticians said that men were still "about a decade behind women" in terms of their participation rate.
Hefce estimated that there were about 270,000 men "missing" from university over the period.
Currently 40% of young women enter higher education, compared to just 32% of young men.
Higher Education Minister David Lammy said: "We want to ensure that young people from every background are given the opportunity to develop their talents and learn the skills which will transform their lives.
"The fact that young people from areas that traditionally have some of the lowest participation rates are 30% more likely to go to university than even five years ago clearly illustrates that the government's long term investment in raising aspirations and widening participation is working."
Shadow Higher Education Secretary David Willetts welcomed the results, saying anyone who had the academic ability and ambition should have the opportunity to go to university.
"But some of the trends are moving in the wrong direction. Just one in five disadvantaged youngsters go to university, compared to well over half of young people from wealthier backgrounds and this gap is getting wider.
"If Labour were serious about improving social mobility they would adopt our policies to help disadvantaged young people get to university, such as providing 10,000 more university places in 2010."
General secretary of the University and Colleges Union Sally Hunt said: "As the deputy leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman made unpleasantly clear last week, there is a massive divide between rich and poor when it comes to university education."
She added that until the details of which courses and universities these young people were attending had been provided, it was not possible to tell whether things had really changed.
Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK - a body made up of vice chancellors and principals - said the report was "excellent" news but more work was still needed.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the issue of "fair access" remained a big deal and it was imperative children from disadvantaged backgrounds were not put off from applying to university.
He said: "The evidence shows however that whatever university you go to - your life chances will significantly improve.
"One of the great vehicles for social mobility in the UK is going to university."
A government-ordered review into the future funding of higher education in England is under way.
Among the questions being asked is whether students should pay more for a university education.
Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education employment research at the University of Buckingham, says that it is students from middle-income backgrounds who could be most affected by any rise in tuition fees.
"The wealthy may not even notice judging by the amount they are sometimes willing to pay on school fees and the poor are going to be protected to some extent through grants and bursaries," he told the Today programme.
"But for those in-between there's the prospect of much higher tuition fees and also having to pay a real rate of interest on their student loans."