UCAS analysis of the 2015 application cycle, which has now come to an end, indicates a record 532,000 students have been accepted to UK universities and colleges this year.
The data, released this morning, shows young people in England became 3% more likely to enter higher education this year, which, together with a small increase in the population, increased 18 year old acceptances by 5% to a record 235,400.
Providers increased offer-making by 4.5% to a record 1.9 million offers, which is likely to be viewed by some as an indicator of institutions getting more aggressive in their pursuit of prospective students following the lifting of the cap on numbers.
The 384,100 applicants who secured a place at their “firm” choice is also a new high. But so too is the number of unconditional offers, which has doubled, a cause of concern for some within the sector.
No clear late application surge linked to removal of grants
There does not seem to have been, as predicted by certain commentators, a late surge in applications from those choosing to study a year earlier as a result the Government’s summer announcement that maintenance grants would be replaced by loans. UCAS believe the impact of changes to student support appears to be limited in this year’s figures, saying the only suggestions of a response are contained in Clearing data.
The number of those who apply later in the cycle and are accepted directly through the Clearing process increased by 1,400 (10 per cent) to 15,200, which more than reverses a fall in the numbers recruited through this route in 2014 and is the largest total ever.
But Dr Mark Corver, UCAS director of analysis and research, told Wonkhe “the most reasonable conclusion is that there’s no evidence on this occasion” that applicants altered behaviours in response to funding changes. In particular, patterns of deferred acceptances (to be published Friday) don’t show any changes similar to, for example, 2011 (when deferred acceptances to 2012 fell in anticipation of higher fees).
He said, “If you’re looking for evidence anywhere that people were trying to get in under these [student support] arrangements, the only sign are these relatively small changes in late Clearing accepts”, but added that the data was not very conclusive given the smallnumbers (the 1,400 rise). Corver suggested that even if we infer all of that excess change as a result of funding changes, we’re only looking at about 1,000, pointing out that “not all of them would have been eligible for funding”.
Unconditional offers rocketing
Other highlights included a doubling of the number of unconditional offers made by institutions to 18 year olds to 23,400, an increase of 11,300 on 2014.
While he noted the rise as being “interesting”, Corver said the total number of unconditional offers “pales into insignificance” given the total 1.9 million offers given, which “are almost all conditional when made to 18 year olds”.
The report adds that there isn’t any clear evidence of change in applicant responses among institutions who started making unconditional offers in 2014.
Unconditional offers were described “grossly unfair”, “irresponsible” and “anticompetitive” in comments submitted to a University and College Union report published in June. It has also been claimed that they can provide a disincentive to studies during A2.
Socio-economic inequalities falling, gender and regional disparities increasing
According to the document, the entry rate for disadvantaged 18 year olds went up by 0.7% to 18.5%, growing more slowly than in 2014.
The report also shows that 18 year old women are a third more likely to enter higher education than men. The application rate proportionally increased by 3.1 per cent for women but just 1.0 per cent for men in 2015.
Meanwhile, the increase in entry rates for 18 year olds from state schools was most rapid for pupils in the black ethnic group (2.4% to 37%) and for asian pupils (2.2% to 41%). The smallest increase was in applications from white pupils (0.6%), which constitute the group with the lowest entry rate (28%).
Mary Curnock Cook, UCAS chief executive, commented: “Although the differences in entry between rich and poor continue to reduce, other differences grow. We have previously highlighted the unacceptably large and widening gap between entry rates for men and women and this year shows young men, and especially white young men, falling even further behind”.
Curnock Cook said “Concentrating outreach efforts on young men, particularly white men, would make a significant contribution to diminishing the rich-poor gap”.
The report states there are 36,000 18 year old men “missing” from universities compared to women – in other words, 36,000 fewer men entering higher education than there would be if men had as high an entry rate as women.
The report also underlines continued regional disparities, with entry rates in the South West (27.6%) and North East of England (27.8%) persistently low. In London, 38.6% of 18 year olds entered higher education in 2015, and young people in the capital are around 40% more likely to enter HE than those in the South West or North East.
London also had the biggest increase in the number of 18 year olds going to university (6%), which is part of a 32% upward trend since 2006, meaning the disparity is being reinforced.
International students: EU growing at a faster rate than non-EU but still smaller in number
There is a notable increase in European Union acceptances this year, which are up by 11%, proportionately nearly four times as much as the UK (3%) and five times as much as non-EU acceptances (2%). There were particularly large increases from Romania (34%), Italy (26%), Poland (25%), Spain (16%) and France (16%), which collectively represent 40% of EU acceptances.
But there are still more acceptances from outside the EU overall (39,300) than from within (29,300).
Commenting on the figures as a whole, Professor Les Ebdon, director of the Office for Fair Access, said:
“This report shows that, in 2015, 18 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds entered higher education in greater rates than ever before.
“While I welcome the sustained improvements this report shows, I am concerned that the rate of progress has slowed this year.
Ebdon was referring to how the 0.7% growth in the entry rate to higher education for 18 year olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (from 17.8% to 18.5%) compares with 1.4% growth in the previous year.
Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said:
“We welcome the news from UCAS that once again students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are now more likely to go onto higher education, including leading universities, than ever before. But there is still more progress to be made.”