HUNDREDS of disadvantaged students bagged places at Bournemouth's universities amid a national push to diversify higher education intakes.

But the universities watchdog says the gap between the haves and have-nots remains stubbornly high, despite "significant efforts and investment" to level the admissions playing field.

Of 3,155 students aged under 21 who started a full-time undergraduate course at Bournemouth University in 2018-19, 400 (12.6 per cent) were from places in the UK where relatively few young adults go into higher education, Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show.

At the Arts University Bournemouth, 90 of the 745 new students were from a disadvantaged background, accounting for 12.7 per cent.

Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the proportion of disadvantaged pupils going to university failed to increase last year, despite a continued push to boost numbers.

The proportion has risen only slightly since 2015-16, when it was 11.1 per cent.

The figures also reveal wide variation between institutions.

While some universities took more than a quarter of their students from disadvantaged areas, the proportion was less than five per cent at one in five institutions.

Chris Millward, director for fair access and participation at the Office for Students, England's higher education watchdog, said improvement had remained modest despite "significant efforts and investment over many years".

He said: "The reality is that each year of slow progress is one where thousands of people with the ability to excel in higher education are missing out.

"That is why it is so important that all universities and colleges registered with the Office for Students have set out the work they will do over the next five years to cut deep-seated gaps in higher education access and outcomes between the most and least advantaged students."

He added that the latest Ucas data, for students who began their courses last autumn, did suggest a "welcome upturn in progress".

The UK's most selective institutions have agreed tough targets with the watchdog for the next five years, and those failing to make progress could face sanctions, including financial penalties.

But Dr Maria Neophytou, director of social mobility charity Impetus, said the lack of progress to close the gap between poorer young people and their peers over the last five years did not bode well for the future.

She said: "Over the last five years the gap has barely changed, yet universities are telling the Office for Students that over the next five years, they will halve this gap.

"A worthy ambition, but there simply aren't enough young people from disadvantaged backgrounds getting the grades they need.

"The danger is universities will end up fighting over the same pool of well-qualified young people, while very little is invested in widening that pool."