The 2021 UCAS cycle was one of the strangest admission exercises on record.
In many ways, it was even stranger than 2020.
In the first year of the pandemic, the uptick in applicants with higher than expected level three grades was seen as a one off, with promises (specifically in England) that it would never happen again. Voluntary admission caps were postulated by universities, ratified by DfE (in a great day for devolved policy making), and then summarily scrapped when the scale of the problem with that “mutant algorithm” became apparent.
In 2021, after a brief initial period where level three exams were going ahead as normal, the centre assessed grades were bolstered by support and guidance from exam boards and a more detailed quality assurance process. However, there was no attempt to scale results to previous years – in many ways the purest level three results since norm-referencing began in 2010 saw another record year for higher grades, once again putting pressure on university admissions processes.
The early part of the 2021-22 academic year was characterised by a range of strange stories about accommodation. The need to honour all conditional offers meant that at some popular providers (coupled with a pandemic driven crash in the private student accommodation market) there was simply no room to be had. Some Bristol students ended up living in Newport, a clutch of York first years were given rooms in Hull, and St Andrews was one of many rural providers to put out an emergency call for bed space to guest houses and hotels.
All this pointed to an expansion of student numbers at some providers, and despite the second large increase in placed student numbers in a row it felt likely that other providers substantially under-recruited. Comparing this year with last year shows some of the places where this may have occurred.
To use this dashboard select your high level domicile of interest at the top left (UK, EU, not EU, All). The top chart shows the difference between 2021 and 2020 cycle accepted applicants by provider, with the number of 2021 applicants shown by the size of the mark. You can use the “highlight name” box at the top right to find a provider of interest. Hovering your mouse over a mark shows a time series for main scheme applications, main scheme accepted applicants, and all accepted applicants for your chosen domicile. You can filter the top chart by Wonkhe group and the usual selection of English regions and UK nations (technically the old NUTS3 regions).
For these purposes of considering rapid changes in the size of providers, it makes sense to consider the two “abnormal” years of Covid-19 together – here I’ve used the same design above to look at the difference in placed students between the two Covid cycles (2020 and 2021) and the two preceding years (2019 and 2020).
In both charts some of the wilder increases will be down to new validation or franchise arrangements at a particular provider. It’s clear that it is not just the traditionally more selective providers that have recruited well – look for instance at the great showing year-on-year from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Greenwich. At the other end of the scale we see a number of well known providers (some traditionally very selective) that for strategic or opportunity reasons saw intake drop in 2021 compared to 2020.
The value of the double cycle comparison is that we can price in the way a university has responded to the 2020 peaks in recruitment – here we see a clearer pattern linked to traditional selectivity, though there are still some outstanding exceptions at both ends of the chart.
The Covid effect – an uptick in interest in subjects allied to medicine and healthcare, also occurred alongside longer-lived trends in subject choice – the mid-teens peak in creative arts provision fading away, proportional stasis in business provision hidden by an increase in providers offering courses, and the tailing away of single subject provision in languages.
This dashboard shows area plots of accepted applications (top) and mainstream applications (bottom) by JACS subject group (choose via the drop down in the centre at the top). You can find individual providers by hovering over areas of interest, or via the highlight name box at the top left – don’t forget to choose a high level domicile of interest at the top right.
It’s fascinating to peer at the institutional and departmental shifts that underlie these sector trends – for instance the University of Sunderland and Buckingham New University have established themselves as high volume providers of business courses, whereas Queen Mary University of London has joined King’s College London, the University of Manchester, and Ulster University in educating larger numbers of computing undergraduates.
If you are in a higher education you might be interested how different subject areas contribute to overall provider totals. This chart is very similar to the previous one, though you select your provider of interest at the top left, and can highlight a subject area with your mouse or via the box on the top right.
I’ve also created a provider level dashboard for mainstream acceptances and applications, and all acceptances – allowing you to see time series for each variable.
The condition of unconditionals
The ban on “conditional unconditional” offers persisted until 30 September 2021, that the recent growth in this type of offer has now been almost entirely reversed and we see almost no evidence of use in the most recent cycle. The data released by UCAS shows other forms of unconditional offer too – notably the full unconditional offer often granted to a candidate following a successful interview, entrance exam, or use of alternative qualifications.
This dashboard shows unconditional offers by provider on the left hand side, and an individual provider series on the right that is triggered by hovering over a mark on the left-hand graph (you can also do this via a drop down at the bottom). The date slider allows you to see versions of the left-hand-side plot for all years.
Conditional offers are once again permitted as of the 2022 cycle – it will be fascinating to see whether this uneasy truce holds without regulatory oversight. If it doesn’t I imagine OfS will clamp down hard and fast – unless, of course, Nadhim Zahawi takes on his predecessor’s ill-advised quest to ensure all offers are unconditional (via post qualification applications).