David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

UCAS snuck some data out yesterday that appears to confirm what many have been hearing for a while – for certain subjects and for certain providers this years’ A level and Higher candidates are finding it harder than ever to secure a place at their chosen university.

With (unless the unthinkable happens) a return to traditional examinations, and the decision to grade to a curve some way below last year’s results, the class of 2022 would always have struggled against those who deferred entry last year or the year before. Despite the best efforts of the Department for Education, we know that university study remains enormously popular – and demographic pressures mean there are more candidates competing.

What’s not been as clear is the role of institutions in this apparent drought of places – and that’s what yesterday’s data release starts (quietly) to unpack.

Autonomous number controls?

Despite fervent wishes to the contrary, our current crop of universities are not able to continue expanding forever. The freezing of the headline fee cap means, especially in these times of soaring inflation, that the real terms income per student has fallen sharply since the move to £9,250 a year in 2016. And university costs – salaries and pensions, estates, consumables – have also risen with import complexities, rises in pension contributions, and the general rise in the cost of living.

What I’ve been expecting to see is providers – especially those that have expanded in recent years – putting the brakes on. There’s a limit to what staffing or campus infrastructure can cope with before the quality of the student experience plummets and staff burn-out shifts from a huge risk to a likelihood – points elements of UCU have begun to make.

There are fixed costs to the kind of expansion that would address capacity issues – new staff, new estates, new equipment do not seamlessly scale by student numbers, and there is clearly a point (which we may well be at in some parts of the sector) where the cost of expansion is substantially greater than the benefits offered – from home students at least.

By the numbers

We only get provider data at this point in the cycle by tariff band (I’ve got a rough indication of which providers you would find in each in one of these charts) and this is the state of play for UK 18 year olds:

[Full screen]

There’s a lot to unpack here. You can see that applications (blue dots) are rising across the board, but that higher tariff providers have this year chosen to make less offers (red dots) than in 2020 or 2021 – this drives the decline in the offer rate (grey bar) which is simply one divided by the other.

High tariff providers have seen sharper growth in recent years than others – one explanation for the anomaly in offermaking for 2022 is that our hypothesis is correct, and home student expansion is no longer attractive.

There also appears to be an impact on applicant behaviour – less applicants have made a firm choice based on an offer from a higher tariff provider than last year, with numbers rising at other providers.

I’ve also done a version of this chart for all UK entrants – we can see that the pattern is similar though less pronounced (mature applicants are generally less impressed with high tariff providers.

Confounding variables

We need to keep two things in mind as we think about this data:

  • Different types of applicants apply to different providers, and there could be behavioural differences linked to background
  • Different providers tend to offer different kinds of subjects – with medical schools, for example, predominantly being found in high tariff providers (arguably there are high tariff subjects!)

Looking at POLAR4 quintiles we immediately spot that the decline in offers this year (not application numbers or firm replies!) is primarily seen in POLAR4 quintile 5. Changes to widening access requirements in England make me think that this is not simply a good news story on WP – my inclination is to note POLAR4 Q5 students are more likely to apply to high tariff providers and high tariff subjects.

[Full screen]

So, what courses are the best off fifth of the 18 year old population failing to get offers for?

In short – medicine and dentistry, veterinary medicine, and allied health. These are increasingly popular subjects of study – the work that healthcare professionals did to keep us all safe during the worst days of the pandemic has rightly inspired a generation of students.

[Full screen]

Medicine and dentistry, of course, are subject to number controls. Even huge expansion in the last two years did not meet demand. We are very short of doctors and dentists, so this might be something that the Department of Health wants to give some thought to. But despite a levelling off of applicant demand in allied health, the offer rate has dropped there too.

In this latter case, I feel like we are seeing the limits of a decade of expansion. Allied health is expensive and complex to teach (especially if you add in demand for placements) and it may be that the numbers for home students just don’t add up any more.

I also want to note a decline in the offer rate for creative arts – a direct result, I suspect of the cuts to OfS grants in this area.

Bonus chart

Here’s a yearly ranking of the hardest subjects to get an offer in, from the same data as I used above. You can see medicine has always been difficult – but has got more difficult over time. And in the creative arts was getting easier with sector expansion but has now got difficult again because of a hostile policy environment. The colours here show broad subject classifications: STEM (blue), arts and humanities (Green), social sciences (teal).

[Full screen]

5 responses to “Is it getting harder to get a university place?

  1. “higher tariff providers have this year chosen to make less offers (blue dots) than in 2020 or 2021” – should be ‘red dots’

  2. I think this paragraph should have “red dots” instead of the second “blue dots”?
    “There’s a lot to unpack here. You can see that applications (blue dots) are rising across the board, but that higher tariff providers have this year chosen to make less offers (blue dots) than in 2020 or 2021 – this drives the decline in the offer rate (grey bar) which is simply one divided by the other.”

  3. ” the cost of expansion is substantially greater than the benefits offered – from home students at least.” And therein lies a large part of the problem, with many Universities chasing the far more profitable ‘overseas’ students ‘local’ UK students are excluded. Though the writings been on the wall for some time, many ‘overseas’ students have returned home and have been building up their home countries Universities, which will lead to fewer and fewer coming here, with many UK Universities now targeting other overseas markets to make up the financial shortfall. You can read the numbers here: https://www.savethestudent.org/international-students/international-student-fees.html

Leave a Reply