Fewer EU students have applied to study at UK universities this year, new figures show.

But new statistics also suggest that soaring numbers of Chinese students are planning to study in the UK, with more people applying from China this year than from Wales and Northern Ireland.

Admissions body Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said that record application numbers from countries outside of the EU showed the "global appeal" of UK higher education.

The latest figures - which show the numbers applying to start undergraduate courses by the main January 15 application deadline - reveal that the number of EU applicants dropped by 860 to 43,030, down 2%.

EU students applying to start degree courses this autumn will have been aware that the UK was exiting the EU on January 31.

International students remain eager to attend Britain's universities, like Cambridge

The UK government has guaranteed that EU students beginning their studies in September will have access to the same tuition fee loans and financial support as UK students.

The Ucas report said the number of applications from EU students before the January deadline had been variable since the UK voted for Brexit back in 2016.

It said that this year, the 2% fall in applicants had been driven by a drop in applications from EU students aged between 19 and 24.

While EU applicant numbers have dropped, Ucas data shows that a record 73,080 people have applied from countries outside the EU - up 14.7% compared to last year.

A breakdown shows that international student numbers have been boosted by significant increases in applicants from China, India and Hong Kong.

Applicants from China rose by a third this year (33.8%) - an extra 5,370 students - to reach a record high of 21,250.

It means that, at the January deadline, for the first time this year, there were more applicants from China than from Wales (18,430) and from Northern Ireland (17,400).

Record numbers have applied for UK universities from outside the EU

By the end of this year's application and acceptance cycle, in the summer, the number of students from China accepted on to courses could be higher than from Northern Ireland, Ucas said

Applications from Indian students are up 32.9% to a record 6,230, while applicants from Hong Kong have risen by 15.2% to 5,870.

Ucas said the latest data also showed that the gap between rich and poor students had narrowed, with the most advantaged students now 2.24 times more likely to apply than their most disadvantaged peers, compared to 2.3 times last year.

Overall, a record 39.5% of all UK 18-year-olds had applied to university by mid-January, up from 38.2% at the same point last year.

Ms Marchant said: "Students are making the most of this year's unprecedented opportunity to apply to university, as more applicants are expected to receive offers, the equality gap continues to narrow, and the UK's 18-year-old population is expected to grow again in 2021."

She added: "The global appeal of studying at our world-class universities and colleges is once again proved by record application numbers from international students."

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Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "It is great news that more disadvantaged students have applied for university this year and that the gap has narrowed with applications from advantaged students.

But progress on this front is grindingly slow.

"This isn't just a job for universities. Educational gaps between rich and poor begin from early in the lives of children and persist through childhood and adolescence.

"If we are ever going to genuinely address this issue, we must invest more in high-quality early years education, and provide better support for schools in areas of high disadvantage."