UK university applications down 1 per cent at January deadline
Analysis of Ucas data suggests new strategies for mature students and BTECS. Simon Baker writes
The number of people seeking places at UK universities by the main January deadline has fallen for a second consecutive year as a rebound in interest from the European Union and a rise in international demand failed to make up for a decline in applications from students in the UK.
The admissions service Ucas said that 559,030 candidates had submitted applications ahead of 15 January, down 5,160 (0.9 per cent) on the same point last year, driven by a 2.5 per cent drop in the size of the UK’S 18-year-old population and by shrinking demand from mature students.
The proportion of UK 18-yearolds applying to university has climbed to a record high, with 37.1 per cent of school-leavers hoping to enter higher education, compared with 36.8 per cent last year, but demographics meant that the total number of applications from this cohort fell by 4,260 (1.6 per cent).
Meanwhile, the number of applicants aged 19 and over contracted by 6,810 (2.8 per cent).
Applications from other EU nations rose by 3.4 per cent on the same point last year, equating to 1,440 more students, offering some hope to sector leaders who fear that Brexit will lead to a collapse in interest from the Continent. International applications from noneu countries were up by 5,820 (11.1 per cent).
This year’s decline in applications follows a 5 per cent drop in applications at the same point last year, which was driven in part by a 7 per cent fall in interest from the EU.
The slide in the number of applications is likely to further increase competition among universities seeking to hit their recruitment targets.
Ucas’ January deadline data also reveal a 13 per cent drop in applications to nursing courses in England among all age groups, following a pattern of waning interest in healthcare courses since the scrapping of NHS bursaries and the move to standard £9,250 tuition fees at English universities and colleges last year.
There is evidence in the Ucas data of a widening gap between male and female applicants across all disciplines, with 18-year-old women now 36 per cent more likely to apply for higher education courses than their male peers. This equates to 36,000 “missing” male applicants who would be needed for gender parity.
The most advantaged students in terms of socio-economic background are still 2.3 times more likely to apply for university courses than those from the most socially disadvantaged group.
Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK, said that while the strong demand among 18-yearolds was “positive”, “the continuing drop in mature applicants must be addressed by government if we are going to meet future skills needs”.
The increase in international applications, Mr Jarvis added, showed that the UK “remains one of the most attractive destinations in the world for talented international students”.
Ever since the lifting of controls on undergraduate numbers in England, the annual Ucas statistics on student recruitment at UK universities have been pored over for evidence of who is winning and losing from the policy.
And since 2016, it has become apparent that enrolments – at least in terms of 18-year-olds – have been falling at a clutch of institutions, many of them post-92s.
This has led to speculation that older pre-92 universities are expanding at the expense of their younger cousins and has raised questions about the sustainability of some modern institutions.
But is this a fair assessment of the recruitment picture that has been unfolding in recent years?
One reason to reject this narrative is to point to the clear evidence that post-92 universities have been among those seeing the biggest rises in recruitment over the past few years.
Out of universities accepting at least 1,000 18-year-olds in the most recent Ucas cycle, 16 have seen numbers rise by more than 50 per cent since 2010 and almost a third of these were post-92s.
Second, some institutions where 18-year-old numbers have been dropping most sharply have pointed to a deliberate strategy to move away from targeting this demographic.
In a letter to Times Higher Education last week, Bill Rammell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, where school-leaver recruitment is down by 61 per cent compared with 2010, says that the institution has “expanded routes” into higher education to encourage non-traditional students to apply.
So do the Ucas statistics reflect this approach at some universities?
One way to investigate this is by delving into the data on mature students where, although overall numbers have been falling, differing patterns do occur among institutions.
For instance, although Bedfordshire’s cohort of 18-year-olds (including from outside the UK) was 57 per cent smaller in 2017 compared with 2012, it accepted 58 per cent more students aged 21 or over. In fact, last year it recruited almost 900 more older students than 18-year-olds.
Looking at the 10 English universities where school-leaver recruitment has fallen the most since 2012 shows that there is a similar pattern at some other institutions but, importantly, not all of them. It suggests that some may have been better than others at shifting focus.
Meanwhile, another recruitment trend in recent years that has often been highlighted is the rise in the number of universities accepting students holding the more vocationally oriented BTEC qualifications rather than A levels.
A report by the Social Market Foundation recently used 2016 Ucas statistics to suggest that some of the most selective universities might not be doing enough to support those applying with such qualifications.
Do the latest Ucas data back this up, and is it just post-92s that primarily accept students with such qualifications?
Analysing the statistics by the proportion of students accepted with at least one BTEC does show that the 10 English universities with the lowest share of such students were all Russell Group universities.
A few of these universities – including UCL and the University of Exeter – have increased their share of places given to BTEC students in the past five years. However, these increases are generally lower than those seen across the sector.
This point is further backed up by looking at the 10 institutions with the biggest percentage point rises in the share of BTEC students accepted, which is dominated by less selective universities.
However, at the same time they are not necessarily the least selective universities and also do include pre-92 institutions such as the University of Bradford, the University of Surrey and Keele University.
Off piste last year Bedfordshire enrolled more older students than 18-year-olds