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2020 was a turbulent admissions cycle – with positive outcomes

The 2020 admissions cycle was full of anxiety and challenge but, as Sarah Barr Miller and Rich O'Kelly set out, the UCAS End of Cycle data shows demand for HE remained strong.
This article is more than 3 years old

Sarah Barr Miller is Head of Data Insight at UCAS Media. 

Richard O’Kelly is Head of Data and Analysis at UCAS.

The 2020 undergraduate recruit cycle was the most disrupted ever. Our whole notion of everyday life was flipped on its head – and yet, the number of people applying and successfully getting a place on undergraduate courses went up.

Now the dust has settled, and our End of Cycle report has been published, we can look at the biggest changes of the year, and at the same time, five reliable constants seemingly unaffected by such a turbulent year.

There were headlines for over a week in the sweltering days of summer about changes to exam results. The impact of those headlines on admissions was significant. The move to centre assessed grades meant that overall A level achievement was much higher than in recent years.

This meant a sharp increase in the average A level grade profile of UK 18 year old applicants, from BCC-BBC to BBB-ABB, around 1.3 grades higher, with increases in grades seen in SQA qualifications as well. However, 84.5 per cent of 18 year old students from the UK who had their grades revised went to be placed at their firm university, or at a provider within the same, or higher, tariff grouping.


The changes to grades, and the point in the cycle at which they happened, also had major implications for Clearing. The number of students accepted through Clearing went up by 13.1 per cent, driven both by those who applied directly to Clearing – acceptances for this group increased to almost 25,000, a staggering 26 per cent year-on-year increase – and by applicants and providers using Clearing to facilitate admissions based on revised grades.

As announcements were made in the days following A level results, and while the dust was settling, the numbers placed in Clearing during that week were almost a fifth (17.3 per cent) down on 2019.

Once the first week passed and students fully understood their options, the volume of main scheme applicants accepted via Clearing noticeably increased by record levels over the next week. Clearing Plus, new this year to help eligible applicants find a suitable place, contributed to that increase as nearly 21,000 registered their interest for at least one available course. 40 per cent of those were ultimately placed at a provider they registered an interest in and which then contacted them.


The inspirational work of the NHS is a clear driver for the rapid rise in nursing applicants during 2020. By the end of the year, subjects allied to medicine saw a 17 per cent increase in the number of accepted applicants, by far the biggest growth of any subject area.

This increase is a continuation of the demand identified back in the summer, where UCAS reported that the number of new nursing applicants between January and June was 63 per cent higher than the same period last year (12,840 applications between the January 15 and June 30 deadlines in 2020, compared to 7,880 in 2019).

The largest growth in UK acceptances was from mature students. Each age grouping of mature student acceptances (21-24, 25-29, 30-34 and 35+) increased by more than 1,000 students in 2020. In particular, the 4.2 per cent rise in those aged 35 and over securing a place can largely be attributed to mature nursing students.

Growth on track

Overall, the number of students accepted in 2020 was higher than the previous cycle, in keeping with the last few years of increases. The entry rate of UK 18 year olds (proportion of 18 year olds in the UK population that have been accepted into a place in HE) not only continued its sustained growth, but accelerated – 37 per cent of UK 18 year olds are now expected to start a full time undergraduate course.

Throughout the early summer it was anticipated that more students than usual might defer due to uncertainty about teaching and accommodation arrangements. At the height of uncertainty, sentiment gleaned from UCAS surveys suggested that around a quarter of applicants were considering deferring.

However, deferral rates were not markedly out of line with recent years – in 2020, 6.2 per cent of acceptances for UK domiciled students were for deferred entry, 0.4 percentage points higher than in 2019.

International demand, highlighted as healthy at the January deadline, translated into acceptances. 2020 saw a record 52,800 acceptances from outside the EU – a year on year growth of 17 per cent. And, while it’s easy to talk in numbers, the willingness of applicants to leave their homes and families to travel to a different country in the midst of a pandemic is testament to the importance of education globally and the continued appeal of the UK system in particular.

Higher tariff institutions

This overall growth in acceptances was disproportionately at higher tariff universities, an artefact of the increase in international acceptances, given that larger proportions of international students attend higher tariff institutions, and the upgrading of level three qualifications, meaning that more applicants were qualified to meet the terms of their offer.

Collectively, higher tariff institutions increased the number of students they accepted by 20,370 to 174,325 – 13 per cent year on year growth and the steepest rise of the last ten years. Trends for medium and lower tariff universities remained comparatively in line with more recent years, with both groups also accepting more students overall.

Widening participation

The global pandemic didn’t dampen positive progress in widening access and participation, as, once again, record numbers and proportions of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds were accepted into universities and colleges. Almost 30,000 18 year olds from POLAR4 quintile 1 areas across the UK secured a place – up 9.4 per cent on 2020 and a new record. This equates to an entry rate of 23.3 per cent for this group. While this is undoubtedly positive progress in widening participation, as ever there remains much to be done to level up access to HE – across the UK the average entry rate was 37.0 per cent, and for those 18 year olds living in POLAR4 Q5 areas it is 51.2 per cent.

The main application deadline for this year’s applicants is just a few weeks away, and we look forward to publishing our analysis of application patterns in early February and continuing to share survey insights throughout the cycle as we emerge from the pandemic.

The next few months are impossible to accurately forecast, but the patterns and shifts from 2020 give a good starting point as the 2021 cycle unfolds and culminates in another busy Clearing – a prediction that’s sure to stand the test of Covid-19.

One response to “2020 was a turbulent admissions cycle – with positive outcomes

  1. very interesting, thank you for compiling and sharing. I can use this in the pre-HE talks I give in schools next erm.

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