Everything from the UCAS June deadline data

More eighteen year olds from China have applied to start a UK undergraduate course in 2021 than eighteen year olds from Wales. And just what is happening with Nigerian mature students. David Kernohan takes a look

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

With youth unemployment at a historic high, you’d be wise to expect an uptick in applications to undergraduate higher education in 2021.

And you’d be right.

It’s testament to the continuing attractions of university study after a sustained period of barely-disguised ministerial attacks – the application rate in England has hit 43.9 per cent. And English applicants from POLAR4 quintile 1 areas (the areas least likely to see young people go on to higher education) constitute 13.48 per cent of all applicants – by a slim margin over last year the highest proportion on record.

However, although the number of 18 year old POLAR4 Q1 applicants has risen, the proportion has dropped slightly since last year’s high.

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The growth in applications from UK domiciled 18 year olds is striking – although the number of applications from 19 year olds (those you might have expected to sit out last year for what now looks like very sensible Covid-19 related reasons) has actually fallen. If you look at reapplicants only (those who also applied via UCAS last year) you can see the fall in this group compared to the historic peak more clearly.

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Domiciles of interest

Growth then, is driven largely by 18 year olds. But where are they from? Though there is demand from UK countries, the number of applicants from China has grown by nearly 3,000 in a year – for the first time there are more 18 year old applicants in the system from China than either Wales or Northern Ireland. And more from China than from the entire of the EU. I’ve not shown England on this chart to make it easier to read.

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Another nation to watch is Nigeria – although here the growth is primarily in mature students. Of just over 3,000 applicants in 2021, a little under 2,000 are over 21 – and 600 of these are over 35.

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And note the continued decline of EU domiciled applications.

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What and where

The inspirational example of health services during the pandemic has driven an even greater rise in applications to those subject areas than last year – now fully 14.32 per cent of applicants are applying to subjects allied to medicine (using the JACS coding). We also see less pronounced, but still notable, growth in medicine and dentistry, education, and social sciences – with these four groups constituting the majority of numerical growth this year. Languages and area studies, at the top level at least, continue a stately decline.

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Last year saw a sizable increase in applications to higher tariff providers, and this trend continues into 2021. However, even though the number of offers made has also grown, the effect is that the offer rate (the proportion of applications that result in an offer) has dropped – from around 73 per cent in 2019 and 2020 to 68 per cent in 2021. My proposed explanation for this would be capacity – many high tariff providers are already above capacity for 2020, taking too much from the fertile pool that is 2021 starts to put serious pressure on estates and available accommodation.

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If you subscribe to the common view that there will be at least some social distancing in the mix for the autumn, there is pressure on capacity anyway. Providers that have stuck their heads over the parapet and indicated that this year’s lectures shifting online is a permanent move have not seen students respond positively. It’s a phenomenon that will give us a lot to look at with provider level data in January.

Ahead of the cycle

While universities have faced pressure regarding commercial income, and many have seen a rise in the costs of finance, last year’s better than expected recruitment was a welcome surprise. And, despite a uniquely dispiriting year for students, we’ve not yet seen any evidence of attrition.

Playing into a captive market – there’s not many jobs about, placement-related learning and apprenticeships are tricky, travelling is unlikely – we should be wary of complacency regarding the experience of students in a likely Covid-filled autumn. There’ll certainly be no help from government. We should by now have learned what works online and what doesn’t – the planning of contact hours should be the key thing course teams are looking at right now.

I would argue that the instinct to shift large lectures online is the right one. A combination of the increasing demand for recorded lectures from students, and the still-a-thing pedagogic trend of the split classroom both play in to shifting the mass transmission of information online to prevent the mass transmission of Covid-19.

The trouble will come in bringing students (and parents, and politicians) with you. A sensible pedagogic and public health decision can also look like a decrease in value for money. This effect has already played a part in the “contact hours” debate, and it has certainly been the main colour to the arguments about the lack of face to face this year. In person teaching in small groups is what we should be looking for – ditching the big lecture hall events will have a reputational but not a pedagogic impact.

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