More students feel comfortable sharing a mental health condition or disability when applying to higher education, Ucas figures suggest.

The number of students in the UK accepted on to a university or college course who declared a disability or mental health condition in their Ucas application has increased to a record high, according to the university admissions service.

It comes after Ucas introduced new questions and improved the collection of information about individual needs, such as a disability and mental health condition, in its admissions process.

Sander Kristel, interim chief executive of Ucas, said the figures suggest the risk of students dropping out of university, or not meeting their potential due to a lack of awareness of needs, is “reducing”.

The university admissions service said its enhancements to the process help students to get the right support and flag their individual needs with their university or college choices earlier on.

The latest data from Ucas shows that the number of accepted UK applicants sharing a mental health condition rose to 36,000 this year compared with 22,000 last year (up 63.6%) and 16,000 in 2019 (up 125%).

Those sharing a disability increased to 103,000 in 2023, up from 77,000 in 2022 (up 33.8%) and 58,000 in 2019 (up 77.5%).

Ucas acknowledged the trend could be due in part to fewer students selecting “other” when sharing their individual circumstances during the application process – 5,460 did this in 2023, compared with 6,700 in 2022 (down 18.5%).

The end-of-cycle report also showed that the gap between the most and least disadvantaged students attending university has widened this year.

For every disadvantaged student, 2.16 advantaged students have been accepted on to a higher education course, which is up from 2.09 in 2022.

But Ucas said the data also showed that the second highest number of UK 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds secured a place at university or college this year.

Overall, 31,590 UK 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (POLAR4 Quintile 1) were accepted – down from the record high of 32,415 in 2022 (down 2.5%).

But the number is higher than in 2019 when 26,535 UK 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds secured a place at a college or university.

Mr Kristel said: “Today’s figures show growing numbers of students feel comfortable in sharing a disability or mental health condition as part of their Ucas application.

“There is nothing worse than a student dropping out or not meeting their potential due to a university not being aware of an individual need that they could have supported with, and today’s data shows the risk of this is reducing.

“This forms part of our ongoing commitment to improve the admissions process, helping to ensure that all students have available support and guidance to progress to higher education, no matter their background.

“This additional context also enables universities and colleges to more readily understand the needs of individual applicants, providing additional assistance such as financial bursaries, year-round accommodation, and mental health and disability support.”

But he added: “There is still work for those of us across the sector to do in closing the gap in participation for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is very concerning to see that the entry rate gap to higher education between the most and least disadvantaged has widened compared to the previous year.

“Schools and colleges are doing everything they possibly can to support young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to be able to choose to go into higher education.

“However, they are not being helped by factors which pull in the opposite direction – including the fact that it is very difficult for a disadvantaged student to be able to afford the living costs of going to university on the level of support that is available.

“The cost-of-living crisis has no doubt made this financial burden even more intimidating.”

On the figures on students sharing a mental health condition, Mr Barton said: “These very significant numbers reflect what we are hearing in schools and colleges which is that the rate of mental health issues has been rising for some time and continues to do so.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is encouraging that more students are feeling comfortable declaring a mental health condition or disability when applying for university. This is key to ensuring that they get the support they need to reach their full potential.

“We have implemented measures to ensure that students’ mental health and wellbeing is supported, including for students’ transition to university and partnerships with local NHS providers.

“It is also great news that since 2010 disadvantaged English 18-year-olds are now 74% more likely to enter higher education. We are working to close the gap further, including by asking universities to set out how they are supporting disadvantaged students to access and succeed in higher education.”