A return to historic growth in UCAS applications

UCAS's Richard O'Kelly celebrates encouraging signs from the 2022 UCAS application cycle January deadline

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

Don’t let the headline figure deceive you. Sustained, long term growth is very much the underlying message in this year’s undergraduate application figures – despite a slight decrease in the total number of applicants.

Wednesday 26 January was the equal consideration deadline for applications for full-time undergraduate courses starting this September, and strong demand from young people in the UK, coupled with enduring international appeal, means our recent optimistic forecast for a million applicants in 2026 is still very much on track.

Numbers of UK 18 year old applicants have jumped by just under 15,000 this year, to more than 320,000. This means that for the first time at this point of an application cycle, we are approaching 45 per cent of all young people in the population applying (43.4 per cent in 2022, compared to the previous record of 42.6 per cent in 2021). UCAS survey data suggests that around one in five 18 year old applicants in England will be applying for a degree apprenticeship.

Increases in the number of 18 year old applicants can be seen within each of the four UK nations. Fuelled by both the continual attractiveness of undergraduate study and ongoing population rises that will be seen throughout the next decade, we anticipate the number of home students applying each year directly from school or college to increase by around 25,000 for the next few cycles to surpass 400,000 in 2026.

Global demand to drive growth

Alongside the growth from young people in the UK is the continued trend of strong application numbers from international applicants. Though EU applications are falling – as widely expected since the UK’s departure from the EU (though Ireland noticeably bucks the trend again this year, up five per cent to 5,100 applicants) – the volume from outside of the EU compensates for them, maintaining total international applicants at just over 111,000.

China (up 12.1 per cent, to almost 29,000) and India (up 10.7 per cent, to reach 8,660) are once again both the largest applicant markets and see notable upticks in demand (though there is some fluctuation in the latest HESA enrolment numbers).

The most substantial proportional increases come from Nigeria (up 46.9 per cent) and Canada (up 17.8 per cent), with both countries having around 2,400 applicants so far this year. Singapore and Malaysia are bouncing back after falls in recent years – up 6.9 per cent and 5.4 per cent respectively – and have over 3,000 applicants each, returning to levels seen around five years ago.

However, there was a fall from applicants from the USA after last year’s rapid growth, down almost 1,400 to 5,280 (though still up on 2020, and the second highest total from the country), and Hong Kong has declined by 400 applicants to just over 6,000 (but is the third largest international market overall).

We project non-EU applicant numbers will continue their upward trajectory in the coming cycles – increasing by almost two thirds to be a significant factor in reaching a million overall applicants by the middle of the current decade.

They will also be a key element in maintaining the International Education Strategy’s ambition of a sustainable 600,000 total international students (undergraduate and postgraduate) in the UK through to 2030; a target that Myriad by UCAS, our new platform for international postgraduate students that officially launches this week, will support.

Avoid the false narratives

Anyone taking an initial glance at the current headline number of applicants could be forgiven for not having such an optimistic take on demand. For all ages, from all domiciles, the 610,720 total figure is 5,600 down on the 2021 cycle.

However, 2021 was truly exceptional for mature applicants, accelerated by factors related to the pandemic. Last year saw an additional 20,000 UK mature applicants – a total of 96,000 applicants by the January deadline (when much of the UK was in the middle of a third lockdown and there was continued pessimism about the economy), compared to the prior year.

Compare that to a shade over 80,000 today. This is still higher than the pre-pandemic levels of the high 70,000s, and continues a longer-term trend of more mature applicants – though it does provide further evidence of the solace that many across society seek in higher education when the job market is in flux.

We also must be mindful of changes in the overall population having a displacement effect on applicants by age. If more people are entering higher education at the first opportunity (aged 18 for the vast majority), the pool of likely mature applicants is therefore slightly smaller. Throughout much of the past decade, admissions teams contended with a shrinking cohort of school leavers – that much talked about “demographic dip” of UK 18 year olds is now part of the picture for applicants in their twenties.

Last year’s off-trend surge in mature applicants and 2022’s subsequent return to form, is certainly a principal driver in there being slightly fewer overall applicants at this point.

Vocational routes

We’ve seen interest in apprenticeships outstrip supply as approaching one in five 18 year old applicants (18.3 per cent) are also applying for a degree apprenticeship – though just four per cent of starts went to apprentices under 19 in England last year. Our apprenticeship portal, Career Finder, saw a record 2m searches in the last 12 months, up 50 per cent from last year.

This year also sees the first 1,300 T level students complete their courses and embark on their next steps. Nearly 500 have so far applied for an undergraduate course, with more expected in the months to come if previous year’s vocational applicant patterns ring true again.

In some ways, this year’s cycle could be considered a return to trends expected pre-pandemic. Mature applicant numbers are reverting to anticipated levels, there is strong divergence between European and non-European totals and 18 year old application rates are increasing which, alongside the population growth, compounds increases in demand from this group.

The last two years have shown that nothing can be taken for granted, though as the country and the world continues to re-open, we can expect this year’s January deadline figures to be a strong indicator of overall demand for and participation in UK higher education.

This article is published in association with UCAS.

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