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 (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - rachael.pells@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

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

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