The phrase “unprecedented times” has been used in every commentary piece over the past two years, but it remains true – particularly for higher education admissions.
While the 2023 entry cycle is a further step towards normality, this is most definitely a new normal: with clarity on how exams will be graded in England and Wales, a growing 18-year-old population, and the rising cost of living that brings unique challenges for students, universities and colleges, and employers.
It is in this context that the 2023 cycle ramps up, and we’ve just reached our first key milestone – the October 15 deadline, which is specifically for courses at Oxford and Cambridge as well as medicine, dentistry and veterinary science, and usually accounts for about 10 per cent of total applicants. What we have seen at this point is a decline in total applicants compared to last year, including a 3 per cent dip in UK 18-year-old applicants.
What is driving this, particularly in the context of an 18-year-old population set to grow throughout the decade?
If anything, this shows just how incredible the increase in demand for higher education was during the pandemic. While the number of applicants is below the number seen in 2021 and 2022, it remains the third highest on record – 15 per cent higher than 2019, and 42 per cent higher than 2013. The trend remains upwards, with the pandemic years looking like anomalies.
There may also be additional environmental pressures that are having an impact on demand. As you’d expect, UCAS has been asked how the rising cost of living may influence student behaviour. The truth is that it is too early to tell, and it remains an area we will continue to investigate and share insights throughout the cycle.
We do know that since the pandemic, students have become more financially aware. And we also know applicants say that cost of living is one of the biggest barriers to entering higher education, and is more of a concern than tuition fees. More recently, via UCAS’ national surveys, we have seen more students express an interest in part-time employment whilst in study to support themselves during increased cost of living.
Supply and demand
Demand for higher education and the economy are closely linked. We know that, generally speaking, certain groups of students are more financially sensitive, in particular disadvantaged cohorts and mature students. Historically, during periods of economic downturn, we tend to see an increase in demand from mature students – which we saw in 2020.
However, recent figures show a different picture is emerging – the numbers of mature learners being placed at university or college this autumn, and applying to early deadline courses for 2023 have both declined. We suspect this may be due to the buoyancy in the job market – despite a decline of 3.6 per cent in total vacancies this quarter, job vacancies remain 57 per cent above the volume seen in January to March 2020.
The decrease in UK 18-year-old applicants at the October deadline has also carried through to fewer UK 18-year-old applicants from disadvantaged areas (down 3 per cent, or 80 applicants, fewer than this point in 2022). However, this is again a sign of how extraordinary the pandemic years were for higher education – 2023 still marks the second highest number of disadvantaged young applicants for the October deadline on record, and is a staggering 35 per cent higher than 2019.
A turning point for widening access and participation
The 2023 application cycle also marks a significant change in how disadvantaged students apply to higher education. This cycle, we have introduced seven new widening participation questions in the application – meaning that carers, estranged students, parents, service children, veterans, students in receipt of free school meals, or refugees and asylum seekers, can now easily make themselves known through the UCAS application, transforming the visibility of these students, and the ease in which universities and colleges can support them. This will undoubtedly prove of value across all four UK nations, with ambitions to widen access and participation, and as the Office for Students (OfS) consults on changes to its approach to equality of opportunity.
Students have welcomed these new questions, with almost every applicant responding to them, and one in five flagging an individual circumstance. This development also transforms the insight we collectively have about the progression of these students. We know that, at this point in the cycle, over 2,000 young carers have applied to higher education, as have over 500 students estranged from their families. This is something we’ll explore further as part of our “Next Steps” report series, with our next release focused on care experienced students, due next month.
What else are we working on?
The introduction of these new questions is part of UCAS’ ongoing commitment and investment in supporting the most disadvantaged students progressing to higher education or apprenticeships, adding value to the existing work across the sector. Through our Fair Access Programme, informed by a national consultation, we are delivering and developing initiatives to achieve this goal. This includes continuing to personalise the journey for students further through the UCAS Hub – our online service providing all the information and tools applicants need to make an informed decision in one place – helping to tackle the knowledge gaps of lesser-supported students, as well as working directly with the lowest progression schools and colleges.
Next year, we are set to launch our Outreach Connection Service. This new service will help connect schools and students to the appropriate outreach activities, following feedback in our consultation that this can sometimes be challenging to navigate.
Whilst we may have seen a year-on-year decline in total applicants at this point in the cycle following heightened demand during the pandemic, the longer-term trend remains upward, and we are forecasting that this decade will see up to a million undergraduate applicants, along with increased demand for all post-secondary routes by 2026. This increased demand will present new challenges for the sector, and if there is not an increase in the supply of high-quality opportunities across all post-secondary routes, it could pose a risk to widening access. As the number of applicants increases, it is key we all ensure that progress in widening access does as well – and in acting on this today, we can help support the students of tomorrow.