Five doors opened in the UCAS End of Cycle 2023 advent calendar

There's surprises in store as UCAS' Ben Jordan runs down the headlines from the 2023 sector-level end of cycle data

Ben Jordan is Head of Policy at UCAS

Like the arrival of Santa, each December UCAS releases its first tranche of End of Cycle data – a Christmas present for higher education wonks across the sector.

There are more than 200 CSV doors to open in the End of Cycle advent calendar that wonks across the land will be eager to open.

This means there are millions of stories to be told about the 2023 entry cycle – which shouldn’t be mistaken for a normal year.

What are the key headlines?

The headline for the 2023 cycle is that we have seen a year-on-year decline in applicant and accepted applicant numbers. This cycle we have seen 752,000 applicants, resulting in 554,000 students gaining a place at one of the c.360 universities and colleges that UCAS supports each cycle. Last year, the corresponding figures were 762,000 and 563,000.

However, we mustn’t lose sight of how extraordinary the past few years have been for demand for higher education. The pandemic accelerated demand, with key workers inspiring a future NHS workforce, and we continue to see the impact of this time in progression. Over the past few years UCAS has made a point of comparing figures to 2019 data – the last ‘normal cycle’ – and compared to then, we have seen a 7.1% growth in applicant numbers and a 2.4% growth in acceptances.

The story for 18-year-olds is even more stark. This cycle, if we compare year on year, we saw a 1.9% decline in applicants (down to 324,500 – still incredibly healthy demand). Similarly, with accepted applicants, we see a 2% decline – down to 272,000. But when we compare it to 2019, we see significant growth – today, we have 45,000 more 18-year-old applicants compared to 2019, and 30,000 more students starting their studies. This is driven by the growing 18-year-old population that has been the engine for UCAS’ Journey to a Million campaign earlier this year.

Looking at these figures, it would be reasonable to say that what we are seeing is a deceleration of demand towards normal growth, as opposed to a decline.

Did international students take the place of UK UG students?

In a word, no.

In the lead up to results day, many headlines suggested international students could displace domestic students in this year’s cycle. At UCAS HQ, from May onwards, we received almost daily queries from journalists on this. These ceased on results day, when we saw a decline in the number international accepted applicants.

We have seen a total of 71,570 accepted students which is down from 73,820 in 2022 (-3.0%) and 76,905 in 2019 (-6.9%). However, we see a different trend when broken down by international students from outside the EU – with 61,055 acceptances – the second highest on record, and down from 62,455 in 2022 (-2.2%) (which in itself was 10,000 up on the previous year).

But what has curbed some of this growth? Firstly, the global market is increasingly competitive – as evidenced by recent moves by competitor nations such as Australia – all seeking to recruit these students. We’ve also had ongoing economic and geopolitical challenges globally.

China will be of particular interest to many Wonkhe readers. One of the notable data points this cycle, particularly in January, was a reduction in applicants from China. The number of accepted Chinese students has fallen from 18,500 in 2022 to 17,400 this year (-6.0%) – although China remains the largest international market by far. The experience and motivations of students from China is something we’ll explore further in a forthcoming report.

International demand is also driven by countries such as India, with 6,810 acceptances up slightly from 6,610 last year (+3.0%), and the United Arab Emirates, with 1,780 acceptances compared to 1,500 last year (+18.7%).

Good progress on widening participation, but more to do

Widening access and participation will be the reason many Wonkhe readers entered the education sector, with higher education offering life-changing experiences and benefits to disadvantaged or under-represented students. It did for me, and is the reason I am today writing for Wonkhe.

The widening access story for 2023 is similar to the overarching sector story – slight reductions in progress compared to last year, but a positive compared to 2019. This is the tale across a range of measures – POLAR, IMD, MEM and TUNDRA.

This year saw changes in how UCAS supports disadvantaged students with the introduction of seven new widening participation questions. For the first time, estranged students, carers, service children, veterans and parents were among the group that were able to flag their individual circumstances. And they did – 11,000 estranged students and 22,000 carers have increased their visibility, transforming their experience as they progress to higher education and building a new evidence base on how we can support them in the future.

This also shows a growing confidence in students sharing information about their individual circumstances. Figures show record numbers of students who have shared a disability or mental health condition as part of their application have gone on to secure a place. The number of accepted applicants sharing a disability increased to 103,000 in 2023, up from 77,000 in 2022 (+33.8%) and 58,000 in 2019 (+77.5%). Meanwhile, those sharing a mental health condition increased to 36,000 this year compared to 22,000 last year (+63.6%) and 16,000 in 2019 (+125%). While there is significantly more awareness of mental health, particularly post-pandemic, this rise may be attributable to enhanced guidance within the application, making it clearer why students are being asked for this information, and encouraging more accurate disclosure. The more a university or college understands about a student, the better able they are to support them.

Different parts of the UK have different experiences

Widening access and participation is increasingly viewed through a regional lens. Overall, the entry rate in England is 36.6%. London has long led the way in terms of participation, and for the last few cycles has seen over half of their 18-year-olds progress to higher education. This year – as you’d expect with the deceleration of demand we’re seeing – the entry rate has reduced and dipped below half to 49.7%, remaining 5 percentage points above 2019.

But the differences across regions are stark. The entry rate in the North East is now 29.7% – a full 20pp below London, and the only region in England with an entry rate lower than 30%. Furthermore, the North East and Yorkshire and Humber both now have entry rates below 2019 levels – the only regions in the UK to do so.

With these figures in mind, it’s important we look at the widening participation gap through a regional lens and take the time to consider what we, as a sector, can do to increase progression to higher education geographically.

How many will be driving home for Christmas?

There has been a lot of conversation across the sector about the impact the cost of living is having, and has had, on student decision-making when deciding where to study. Our insight suggests that students are more likely to consider more local options but are also shifting their expectations of what higher education will be like – fewer social activities, different supermarkets and greater interest in a part-time job.

This was a reasonable assumption – in any given cycle, we see around one in three students living at home during their studies, with disadvantaged students more likely to do so. However, this cycle, for 18-year-olds, we see little difference compared to last year with a 68-minute commute on average – only two minutes closer to home than 2022, meaning many will be driving home for Christmas.

But an interesting finding from today’s data is the story of mature students. It shows that those who are aged 25 and over have accepted universities and colleges that are six minutes further away from home (meaning they have a 41-minute commute), in comparison to their 2022 counterparts. Given we have seen a continued reduction in mature students, could it be that those that continue to engage in higher education are less focused on local provision?

Today marks the first Christmas present from UCAS, with our next release scheduled for January. Within the data this year are a number of things to celebrate – strong demand and positive progress compared to 2019. However, the year-on-year decline and comparisons post-2019 will likely draw attention and may raise questions regarding longer term trends for the sector. For us, we remain confident that the opportunity for growth will be a story for the remainder of the decade, powered by the growing UK 18-year-old population – with 45,000 more applicants from this group today compared to 2019, and an expected 200,000 growth in the UK wide 18-year-old population.

Leave a Reply