This year’s university applicants face an uncertain admissions experience

Though application numbers are strong at the January deadline, there's a lot of the cycle left to navigate. Sander Kristel thinks through what the rest of this year might look like for applicants.

Sander Kristel is Chief Operations Officer at UCAS. 

The UCAS January application deadline data traditionally gives us a strong indication of demand for undergraduate study for the next academic year.

This cycle is like no other, including the UCAS deadline, which we extended to give students and teachers the two extra weeks many of them needed following the move back to online learning in early January. What has stayed the same however is applicants’ resilience to the circumstances of Covid.

The rising tide

Demand is strong across almost all the key indicators. Overall, a total of 616,360 people have applied, an increase of 8.5 per cent and a new record for this point in the application cycle. Each nation of the UK is seeing both more applications from young people, which was to be expected as the demographic dip of 18 year olds of the last decade is now reversing, and an increased application rate.

The 18 year old application rate (the proportion of all young people across the UK applying) is currently at 42.6 per cent – the first time that more than two out of every five students in this important group have applied by this point in the cycle.

Promisingly, mature applicants from the UK are back to the levels seen five years ago, at just shy of 100,000, with the 25-29 and 30-34 age groups increasing by almost a third. Though undoubtedly encouraging, it isn’t wholly surprising considering the amount of applications that came in during the latter half of last year’s cycle once the pandemic took hold. Indeed, it’s normal for applications from older age groups to increase when the economy is not as strong.

One subject area seeing a convergence of these trends of both more young and mature applicants is nursing. In total, over 60,000 people have shown they are keen to be part of the fightback against coronavirus and embark on a career to provide front line medical support and help those in need recover from the disease.

Spread across all age groups, from a record 16,560 18 year olds (up 27 per cent on this point last year), to 10,770 applicants aged 35 and over (an increase of almost 40 per cent), the inspiring stories from wards across the country over the past year has undoubtedly led to more people wanting to become our nurses of the future.

Diversity and international applications

There is further good news when analysing the diversity of this year’s cohort. The largest proportional increase in UK applicants by their declared ethnic group has come from black and mixed race students, both up 15 per cent to 40,690 and 25,830 respectively.

Applications from Asian students have increased by 10 per cent to 70,140, while 11 per cent more white students (to a total of 352,170) have applied. These figures, coupled with more than a quarter of 18 year old students from the most disadvantaged areas (26.4 per cent from quintile 1 of the POLAR4 measure) indicate that messages about higher education being available to anyone with the desire and potential to succeed no matter their background, and especially in rewarding careers in health and social care, have hit home.

International recruitment shows a very mixed picture however. Applications from outside of the EU continue to rise and are up this year by 17 per cent to a record 85,610, showing the value that international applicants and their families place on studying at the UK’s institutions regardless of the pandemic.

China and India continue to lead the way in terms of volume (25,810 and 7,820), though it is the USA which has seen the largest proportional increase of any major nation as applicants have soared 61 per cent to 6,670, a rise of over 2,500 in one year.

The story is not the same for EU applicants though. The short term effects and uncertainty at the end of 2020 over the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, and changes to student support arrangements, have undoubtedly had an impact on applications from the continent.

Overall, EU applications are down to just over 26,000, falling by 40 per cent in 12 months. However, Ireland breaks the mould of EU countries; almost 5,000 applicants are keen to come to the UK, up 1,000 (26 per cent) on last year.

A murky picture

But the future for this cycle’s applicants is anything but clear. Confirmation and Clearing are just five months away, and questions remain on exam results, grade distributions, result publication dates and the appeals process.

Clearing will be different again this year, and, as we showed in 2020, students, teachers, admissions teams and UCAS can all be incredibly flexible. We will be in 2021 too to ensure students can get to where they need to go and be supported in that process.

Universities and colleges will find themselves in a different position to last year’s atypical situation. This is because there will be many more applications to make decisions on, coupled with another year of abnormal grade distributions, with student outcomes potentially higher than in recent years.

All universities, regardless of how selective they are, have seen significant increases in applications so far, with higher tariff providers up 9 per cent, medium tariff up 8 per cent and lower tariff up 11 per cent. However, as we saw last year, universities and colleges have the capacity in many courses to ensure as many students as possible can benefit from higher education.

Looking to results day this year, there are several scenarios that may arise, with Ofqual currently considering the best approach. These include:

  1. Exam results and HE confirmation both occurring in July – giving more time for students’ appeals, yet creating the challenge of keeping them engaged in their forthcoming studies for longer before the start of term.
  2. Results are known in July, but confirmation happens in August – this creates a big unknown with more time between two crucial points in the cycle than ever, with a likely higher number of appeals. If this approach is announced by the government relatively early in the spring/summer, plans could potentially be made to help support students’ mental health and arrange any catch-up activities that would be beneficial before the start of term proper.
  3. Both events remain in August – though with more appeals likely than a “normal” year, meaning time could be squeezed at several points creating pressure on the system.

For each of these three possibilities, we should look at what was achieved last year. With more time, anything is possible. Clarity as early as possible is critical, however.

There is also the question of how people applying directly into Clearing will behave. There could be fewer due to more people applying now, at the deadline point, in the cycle. Or the trend of more later applications could continue again this year, particularly as the economic situation continues to evolve.

If it’s the former, universities and colleges who have relied upon Clearing for large numbers of their intake may need to look at their offer-making and conversion strategies now with the applications they have already received.

Ever since the beginning of our new world last year, applicants and their behaviour have defied many sceptics and predictions. Nothing should ever be taken for granted though, especially while lockdowns and local restrictions continue to affect everyday life. Today’s numbers demonstrate the overwhelming attractiveness of UK undergraduate study and that students are clearly thinking about their futures beyond Covid.

It’s the duty of UCAS and everyone involved in admissions to support applicants to make their journey to higher education, in once in a lifetime circumstances, as fair and smooth as possible.

This article is published in association with UCAS. All figures are compared to equal consideration deadlines of previous years. Therefore, the figures as of the extended deadline of 29 January 2021 are analysed against applicant figures as of 15 January in all previous cycles to provide the most reliable insight possible. The number of new applicants between 15 and 29 January in years prior to 2021 (fewer than 10,000 in 2020) are unlikely to be substantial enough to alter trends identified.

Join Wonkhe and UCAS at our Wonkhe @ Home event The future shape of admissions – what next for students, schools and universities? on Tuesday 2 March.

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