Solace in study: 30 June undergraduate applications

Richard O'Kelly breaks down the latest UCAS data for the 30 June undergraduate application deadline

Richard O’Kelly is Head of Data and Analysis at UCAS.

The publication of 30 June UCAS deadline data once again brings valuable insight about the demand for undergraduate study.

This set of figures reports on everyone who applied by the end of June and was able to apply for up to five full time undergraduate courses simultaneously (provided that the course is still accepting applications). It gives us answers to questions that have been posed since the pandemic began, and since January about this year’s demand and pattern of application-making from prospective undergraduates, plus clues for how Clearing will be used.

As expected, applicant numbers are up year-on-year. Today’s June deadline numbers follow on cumulatively from those shared back in January, at the main application deadline. Though it might seem the trends in demand had dropped off since last year, for several reasons we know that this isn’t the case, and it is reassuring that so many across society are finding solace in higher education in this difficult time.

Earlier applications mean ambitious applicants

Six months ago, there was an eight per cent overall increase in applicants. Back further still in October, it was 12 per cent. It is now much closer to four per cent, still a significant rise in demand but it comes with several contributing factors.

It’s clear that students have applied earlier this year. Whilst last year’s boost in post-January applications will naturally narrow 2021’s year-on-year increases between January and June, applicants tell us that they have been more prepared with their research and applications.

Many more have applied for some of the most competitive subjects – something UCAS and the sector encouraged early on in the cycle. This can especially be seen in international application patterns, not just those from UK students. They’ve also been thorough in researching apprenticeship options too, as searches in UCAS’ CareerFinder have topped a million in the last year, up 37 per cent within 12 months.

Last year’s late spike in applications was so substantial that it reversed an earlier fall in overall UK applicants. The stimulus in demand that emerged during the pandemic has continued into the 2021 cycle. Coronavirus was still new at this point last year. Sadly, it is now part of everyday life, though that has meant many have not been forced into late decisions about their futures in the next academic year. The influx of later applications last year has now been spread across the whole of the main cycle, though we still expect a very active Clearing.

The January deadline was delayed by two weeks due to the UK re-entering lockdown as we began the 2021 calendar year. This drive for applications by the January deadline, and the competitiveness of some courses and providers, will remain for years to come, assuming the model stays with exploration of options and application to university ahead of results received. The January “equal consideration” deadline has, and will, become more important for students in search of an offer for competitive courses, and for admissions teams managing their numbers.

Mature applicants were a big part of that late growth last year, and they are again contributors to the growth in applicants throughout this year – UK applicants aged 21+ are up by nine per cent to 125,090, with mature applicants applying for nursing up 19 per cent to 39,730.

It’s not all Covid

Even without the factors directly associated with the pandemic, it would be reasonable to expect that applications would rise this year. The UK’s 18-year-old population is now starting to rise out of the demographic depths of recent years. This increase in the number of young people in the population will accelerate rapidly within the next decade.

Today’s stats show significant jumps in the 18 year old application rates across the UK; in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, in particular where the increase is twice as large in the last year, as it had been across the previous eight years.

If all current demographic and application trends continue as they are, we would expect to see more than one million undergraduate applicants in four years’ time. Within that tidal wave of demand will be pressure points, especially on widening participation; even more so on selective courses. This will only magnify over the coming years.

Those institutions with strong outreach programs will be rewarded, especially those reaching back further into the late primary and early secondary school years as we know that one in three students start thinking about HE in primary school.

Non-EU applicant numbers are up on last year. The impact of the introduction of the Graduate route for international students looking to stay in the UK after their course is clearly substantial. Not least in students from India, where the number of applicants in 2021 is 9,930. Compare that to 6,210 at this point in 2019, and it’s a 60 per cent increase in just 24 months.

We have also published new offer-making data alongside application numbers to give a more detailed and transparent view of the cycle. The rise in applications has been met with a similar rise in offers from universities. This means we expect a rise in students with confirmed places come September.

It is especially welcome to see that since 2019, there’s been a 20 per cent increase in offers made to students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds from the most selective universities, which shows the sector was more than willing to walk the walk, following the earlier talk of encouraging everyone to aim high in 2021.

Next stop: Clearing

Last year, the sector coped phenomenally well with the shift to centre assessed grades, and we’re confident we will all step up again. There is likely to be a small number of deferrals, but these will be handled fairly. There will be less headroom for near-miss candidates this year though.

In years gone by, universities and colleges have been able to use confirmation decisions to allow those near-miss candidates with mitigating circumstances to be prioritised at confirmation. That option is not going to be feasible for some courses and institutions this year due to the increased volume of applications, but we still expect some degree of flexibility across the sector. There will still be selective courses available in August, and we expect to see record numbers overall through Clearing, which will also include those choosing the direct to Clearing route.

For the first time, the UK has a single results day. In just over a month, on Tuesday 10 August, we will have the initial picture of how the cycle will conclude. The last 18 months have been a challenge for us all – and let’s not lose sight of the fact that the majority of this year’s applicants from their initial research, through applications, disrupted learning, offers, and soon, results, will have collectively made the most exceptional journey into higher education than any cohort in history.

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