Keep calm – students still want to study

UCAS' Richard O'Kelly shares the latest insight from surveys of applicants to higher education, exploring their circumstances and motivations.

The publication of the 30 June undergraduate application statistics usually confirms trends identified earlier in the year following the 15 January “equal consideration” deadline.

Though 2020 is not usual, despite months of speculation, today’s numbers bring positive news. Throughout the interruptions and adaptations of the last few months, demand from applicants has remained strong, with more people submitting an application than at the equivalent time last year.

During the year, we’ve pointed to the current application cycle as the low point in the past decades’ fall in the UK 18 year old population, and therefore the once in a generation opportunity on the table for anyone considering starting a degree in the autumn.

However, the pandemic has obviously thrown up many questions. Back in February, in our International Insights report, we first referenced the potential impact of Covid-19. Since then, we’ve published survey results attempting to clarify students’ thinking and predict their behaviour. Last month, there was also the exceptional publication of data relating to how many students had accepted offers for an immediate autumn start compared to deferrals.

Today’s data shows that applications are up pretty much across the board, and have increased at faster rates than the same timeframe last year. We can see there has been a 10 per cent increase in the number of new applicants between the 15 January and 30 June application deadlines – some 84,600 people applied this year compared to 76,740 in 2019.

There are now more UK applicants in 2020 than in 2019. In January, this figure was 0.4 per cent down, and it’s now 1.6 per cent up – a rarity in recent years, and a shift that many wouldn’t have foreseen.

One trend we should all be particularly thankful for is the number of people who’ve clearly been inspired in recent weeks to study nursing. Never has the nation been so indebted to these professionals, who have worked tirelessly and selflessly over recent weeks and months to keep us safe. Applicant numbers are up 15 per cent year-on-year, to reach 58,550 overall. The number of new nursing applicants between 15 January and 30 June was 63 per cent higher than the same period last year (12,840 in 2020, compared to 7,880 in 2019).

Applying through lockdown

On 23 March, the Prime Minister first announced the national lockdown measures – so using this date as a marker gives us the best possible picture of how coronavirus has affected demand for HE.

There was a 17 per cent increase in new applicants – 54,810 versus 46,770 in the same time period in 2019. Numbers of new UK applicants applying between 23 March and 30 June are up 30 per cent, and much of this has been fuelled by mature applicants, with increases of 37 per cent for applicants aged between 30 and 34, and 34 per cent from those 35 and older.

Glancing back at nursing (a subject which is always popular with mature students), applications have almost doubled (an increase of 98 per cent) since March, compared to 2019 – which is the largest growth in any major subject.

Previous insight into mature applicants’ behaviour has shown they are more likely to apply later in the year than younger applicants. However, it’s also important to note that the application rate for 18 year old applicants has now hit a record 40.5 per cent, showing they haven’t been deterred from applying over the last few months either. Quite the opposite.

Notwithstanding these positive signals, we’re not out of the woods yet, and it remains to be seen how this uplift in demand will convert into arrivals on campus in the autumn. Many surveys have attempted to predict how many applicants will convert into students in the autumn, and with so many variables and a wide range of results, clarity still isn’t there. What we can meaningfully glean through surveys though is why applicants have applied since the main 15 January deadline.

I want to work on the front line

The latest data from the surveys that we have conducted in recent weeks helps to explain motivations behind later applications this year. When asked why they didn’t apply back in January, over 52 per cent of later applicants said they had only started thinking about it more recently. Almost half (over 45 per cent) said the coronavirus outbreak had increased their likelihood of applying, and for 8 per cent it was the main or only reason they were applying.

When analysing the free text responses, four key themes emerged: “I couldn’t do the other thing I wanted to do”, “I had time to think and consider my life options”, “I am worried about job prospects”, and “I want to work on the front line”. The three latter points, and particularly the final one, all substantiate the spike in nursing applications and the rise in mature applicants, which our analysis has previously shown can be linked to a weaker job market.

We should never lose sight of the emotion involved for applicants making their decisions, especially this year. Some of their survey responses bring these to life:

  • “I was going to take a year out to continue to pursue my career in football, but due to the outbreak going to uni would be the best option for now.”
  • “I found I have more time to consider things and what I wanted for the future, and also had the time to spend on the application as I wasn’t having to rush about as much after the kids doing the school run and going to toddler groups.”
  • “To encourage job security.”
  • “The need for social workers to keep society going and protecting those in need within our society.”

With deferrals still a talking point, there’s a particularly promising statistic from our latest survey. It shows that around a third of those students who are currently considering deferring would either stick with their current choice to start his year, or find another place in Clearing for an autumn 2020 start, if they were told they’d have to apply again to defer. Demand isn’t diminishing in volumes to be fearful of.

While there are still over two months to go until term begins, today’s picture is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Every faculty, department, and team at each university and college have been planning for the autumn and beyond, anticipating welcoming students (back) to campus. Today’s numbers, combined with a plausible lack of options for those contemplating a year out, show many students eager to succeed in higher education remain set on treading the usual pathway to undergraduate study, in this, the most unusual year.

This article is published in association with UCAS. 

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