This article is more than 2 years old

A first look at the UCAS 2020 application cycle

Our annual first glimpse at applicant data doesn't offer us any clues about offer-making behaviour. But, as David Kernohan discovers, it's increasingly becoming an excellent guide to who's applying to university.
This article is more than 2 years old

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

A caveat – after last week’s press about a drop in the use of conditional unconditional offers based on an early analysis of 2020 cycle data we (like many) were wondering if we’d see any of the data in this release. We don’t.

But there’s a lot of other data to get stuck in to. UCAS claims 98.3 per cent of 18 year old main scheme applicants applied by January 15 in the last cycle – and 88 per cent of all applicants. So the demographic data here is a very good indicator of what the 2020 intake will look like.

As expected there has been a small increase in applications – up 6,190 (1.2 per cent) over this time last year. 2020 represents the demographic low point in the 18 year old population (a decrease of 1.5 per cent over 2019), so growth is very much a filip in the sector’s collective cap.

But there is a flip side – no provider can sensibly blame falling numbers of 18 year olds for poor recruitment – any problems here lie with providers alone. Clearly higher education as a whole is more attractive than ever.

The continued year-on-year growth in 18 year old applications has seen an interesting side effect. The number of 19 year olds applying for university has fallen (by 7.3 per cent). This can be seen against a wider drop in mature student entry, but it does feel like the gap year is a fading tradition.

Those gaps in full

The gap between the numbers of men and women applying to university has widened again – applications from 18 year old women have grown proportionally by 4.1 per cent, whereas applications from 18 year old men have grown 2.1 per cent. Women are now 1.41 times more likely than men to apply to HE by the January deadline.

And the gap between POLAR4 quintile 1 (least advantaged) and POLAR4 quintile 5 (most advantaged) has shrunk too – those from quintile 5 are now 2.24 times more likely to apply to HE by the January deadline than those from quintile 1. That’s still a big gap, but it’s the lowest on record (down from 2.30 in 2019).

But you are still more likely to apply if you are from London than any other region of the UK. 52.6 per cent of 18 year olds from London apply to HE by the January deadline – the first time more than half of 18 year olds from a region have done so. The rate is more than a third of all other English regions – with the North East and South West just scraping over the line.

In Northern Ireland 47.9 per cent of 18 year olds applied by the deadline (and increase of 1.8% over last year). Wales has seen a fall in the number of 18 year olds this year, but the proportion applying by January 15 has risen to a record high of just under a third.

There is also data for Scotland – but as a very welcome caveat points out UCAS applications represent only about 65 per cent of applications. Applications to Scottish Further Education Colleges will be included in this data within the next two year.

A difficult subject

These days everyone has a dashboard, and UCAS is no exception. We’re directed there to examine subject trends – but I’ve also built you a dashboard below so you don’t have to do that.

The first tab shows each subject as a percentage share of the total across the two available years, the second splits the both years’ numbers by sex.

[Full screen]

The two bellwether subjects for the sector are mathematics and languages – both are small subjects that have shrank further in recent years, and subjects that are often considered unattractive (in terms of the A level requirements I mean, both are perfectly lovely fields of study) to 18 year old applicants.

This year mathematics applications by the January deadline have grown by 0.5 per cent (130 students). You don’t need to be in a Department of Mathematics to know that this isn’t great – but it is a huge improvement over a large drop in applications between the 2018 and 2019 cycles. There is a caveat – we’re comparing Common Aggregation Hierarchy (CAH) mathematics with JACS mathematics – for this subject the two aggregations are similar enough to make a safe comparison, other subjects would not be possible to compare across systems in this way.

At some point we are going to have to fully switch from the outmoded (JACS) coding system to the current (CAH) one – but I feel like there is scope to publish both in parallel for a few years yet until we build up a good CAH time series.

Languages are also safe to compare but there the story is not so rosy – it’s down a further 6.6 per cent (4,330 students) over this time last year. The market clearly cannot support language courses at anything like the level we need as a global trading nation – will this year be the year the state steps in?

And on unconditional offers? I asked at UCAS, and Clare Marchant told me

Today we’re publishing sector-level application figures for the 2020 cycle, just three weeks after the January deadline. Last week we published 2019 institution-level offer-making data, though it is clear that patterns of unconditional offer-making will be different in this year. Our forecast from last week remains valid and relevant.

When publishing the 2019 data we felt it wouldn’t be right for students, teachers, the HE sector, and the public, to come to the wrong conclusions about such a strong topic of public interest during the current cycle when it’s clear to us there’ll be a shift in trends.

We don’t make forecasts lightly. We use our data science capability, early analysis of offers made since September, plus information that universities and colleges are sharing with us and in their public statements, to give the most up-to-date picture possible”

2 responses to “A first look at the UCAS 2020 application cycle

  1. BERNARD: You wouldn’t put a filip in your cap, Minister.
    HUMPHREY: That will be all thank you, Bernard.

  2. a small point of grammar above: ‘that have shrank’ should be ‘that have shrunk’. Otherwise a very interesting article

Leave a Reply