Covid-19 has not dampened the appeal of UK higher education

A month on from A level results day, UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant finds cause for cautious celebration in the persistence of demand for higher education.

Little more than a month on from A level results day, with universities and colleges now inducting students on their courses, the final chapters of the 2020 admissions cycle can start to be written.

Like any story, this year’s cycle features a beginning (applications made pre-Covid-19, by the main 15 January deadline), middle (decision-making during lockdown) and end (Confirmation and Clearing, and the awarding of centre assessed grades).

This has been one of the most momentous of undergraduate admissions cycles in living memory. The dust certainly hasn’t settled – our end of cycle reporting in the winter will provide the definitive account of the year.

At that point we’ll be able to dig deeper into the impact of centre assessed grades – certainly our latest analysis suggests that around 87 per cent of an estimated 15,000 students who did not have their firm choice confirmed on A level results day and who subsequently met their original offer were placed at their first or insurance choice university, or another institution in a similar tariff band.

Predictions that the lower and medium tariff providers could have their numbers decimated haven’t come to pass. Though there has been 12 per cent increase in the number of students accepted into higher tariff universities, this is likely due to the rise in non-EU applicants who are more likely to apply to higher tariff providers, and the flexibility shown by providers throughout the cycle, including when centre assessed grades were awarded.

While there has been little (medium tariff) or no growth (lower tariff) in overall acceptances for the two other groups, they have not fallen off a cliff edge for these groups as a whole; though recruitment in the weeks following A level results day didn’t benefit them to the extent in previous years as students used their raised grades to move (back) to higher tariff options.

Meanwhile, the data that we have gives a rich picture of how the UK higher education sector has risen to the challenge of welcoming students during the global crisis.

The universal appeal of UK HE endures

Covid-19 has not dampened the appeal of UK higher education. Overall, the total number of accepted applicants is up four per cent, to a record 515,650, because of more home (also up four per cent) and international applicants with a confirmed place.

The significant increase of more than 3,580 additional students from outside the EU accepted comes alongside a much smaller decline of 720 EU students from within the EU. Enrolment is currently taking place with universities and colleges implementing Covid safety measures, and many will cautiously be waiting to see the proportion of international students who take up their places this year.

There is also a large jump (more than 20 per cent) in the number of Direct to Clearing applicants this year – 29,150 applicants with 17,880 now placed. Within that, the largest percentage increase has come from 18 year old applicants applying over the summer, with demand rising by almost 50 per cent from 3,050 to 4,510 – a clear signal of the draw of undergraduate study, albeit set against the backdrop of a squeeze on the breadth of options for young people.

Despite a strong media rhetoric in June that deferrals could rocket due to the blend of online and campus-based learning that universities are offering, the proportion of students with a confirmed place planning to start their course now, rather than wait, is almost identical to 12 months ago. 5.8 per cent of all UK acceptances are now holding a place for 2021 entry, just 0.1 percentage points more than last year. Applicants choosing to “un-defer”, initially applying for a 2021 start, but now intending to start in 2020, have effectively cancelled out the small increase in deferrals.

Widening participation

There has also been concern that students from the most disadvantaged areas could be left behind this year – that, thankfully, isn’t borne out in the data. Though there is still a long way to go to close the inequality gap, it has continued to narrow this year as the ratio of POLAR Q5:Q1 entry rates for UK 18 year olds continued to fall, on trend, to a new low of 2.24, meaning that for every student from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, there are 2.24 from the most advantaged.

A record 22.5 per cent of all young people from POLAR quintile 1 (the most disadvantaged areas) have been placed on an undergraduate course. The gap has also contracted in each of the devolved nations too using country specific multiple measures of deprivation. In Scotland, the ratio between entry rates of Q5:Q1 SIMD 18 year olds fell by 0.17, to a record low of 3.05. In Northern Ireland, the equivalent ratio using NIMDM fell by 0.1 to 2.3. In Wales, the same ratio hit a new record low of 2.4 using WIMD.

The diversity of the sector and its students is one of its strengths and this has continued in this cycle, with highest ever number of POLAR Q1 and Q2 students (17,180, up from 14,020 in 2019) accepted at higher tariff providers in the UK. While there are also increases in students accepted from the most advantaged backgrounds this year, progress in widening participation and access throughout the last decade is evidenced with more than twice as many Q1 students accepted to higher tariff universities this year (6,640) than in 2011 (3,240).

Positive thinking

Courses that will educate the next generation of frontline workers have been incredibly popular. The inspiring and welcoming healthcare sector is currently due to have a record 34,190 new nursing students, a huge increase of more than a fifth on last year. Demand for teaching courses has also risen during the pandemic. These courses are particularly popular with mature applicants, and previous UCAS research has shown the link between these subjects and periods when the economy and job market is in decline.

More so than ever, sentiment and emotion gleaned from survey results, combined with application data will provide the most accurate ongoing insight into the reality of admissions. Earlier in the year, eight per cent of students said they wanted to defer, one in five said they would change their firm choice and over a third said they would need to use Clearing. Most startlingly, 98 per cent said they had concerns about beginning a course this autumn. However, thanks to a sector-wide effort from universities, colleges, UCAS and others, confidence grew, and these numbers haven’t come anywhere close to bearing out.

In the days following the results days, we surveyed UK placed applicants on how they were feeling about starting their course, with over 12,000 responding. Interim results show that two thirds (69 per cent) said they felt confident or very confident that everything is “in place to ensure [their] studies start as smoothly as possible.” Only two per cent of students said they didn’t feel “ at all confident” with a further ten per cent expressing some “lack of confidence”. When asked how they were feeling about certain aspects of university life, 61 per cent of students were more excited than worried about leaving home, compared to 18 per cent who said the opposite. We’ll be looking further into these survey results as part of our end of cycle reporting.

2020 was the nadir of the UK’s 18 year old demographic dip, and so could have easily been expected to be the toughest recruitment environment for the sector yet, even without the prospect of Covid-19. However, the demand for UK HE is still palpable, testament to all those who work in the sector. And not just for what’s happened in the last six months, but for the years it takes to build a worldwide reputation.

Though challenges undoubtedly remain and the adjustments to new ways of learning and working continue, the 2020 undergraduate admissions cycle looks set to close on many more positive notes than most predictions forecast.

This article is published in association with UCAS. 

One response to “Covid-19 has not dampened the appeal of UK higher education

  1. From a middle tariff HEI, it doesn’t feel that great, notably because of many accommodation voids. Hoping that international recruitment will rescue the position, subject to visas and aircraft of course.

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