David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

This is not your usual January deadline.

Literally so. For 2021 applicants were given an extra two weeks to complete their UCAS forms – a 15 January deadline in other years was a 29 January deadline for 2021. So we need to be careful in comparing this data with previous years.

But because I am about to do that I’ll offer a caveat. In a regular year nearly all 18 year olds apply by the January deadline – more than four in every five mainstream applicants do so too. This was also true in 2021.

The headlines are of growth in UK recruitment, a sharp decline in EU applications, and a focus on subjects allied to medicine and education. But there are a lot of other things happening too.

A new career in a new town

This cycle could have gone in one of two ways. Either, appalled by scenes of fences around halls of residence and dismayed by the prospect of full fees for online learning, the young people of the UK would turn en mass away from traditional higher education. Or, facing an uncertain short-term future and a lack of alternatives, they would turn towards it in greater numbers.

It’s the second one. Overall, applications are up 9.24 per cent over last year – for 18 year olds the number is 11.42 per cent and for those aged 35 and over it is up an astonishing 30.8 per cent. In total there were 2.7m applications via UCAS before the January deadline.

It’s widely believed that demand for higher education is counter-cyclical – people opt to gain new skills when the economy is tough and the job market is rapacious. We don’t know what the aftermath of Covid will be like – but taking the chance to spend three years learning new skills feels like a sensible bet right now. Applications for deferred entry (tab 2) are very slightly up on the previous few years, but nothing outside of the ordinary appears to be going on.


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Art decade?

What skills are people looking to develop? There’s growth everywhere over last year but the big attraction is in subjects allied to medicine, up more than 26 per cent since 2021. Sixty-two per cent of applications from people over 35 are to subjects allied to medicine. Other big winners include medicine (up 19 per cent), and education (up nearly 17 per cent). The continued fall in desire to study languages continues – there were just 2,150 applications to study non-European languages this year.

Among 18 year olds there is an interesting pattern of growth in “combined” subjects – this could indicate people hedging their bets by preparing for a future where multiple skills would be needed or combining a career goal with a less remunerative interest. The single subject first degree is very much a UK peculiarity – combined subjects are a great idea and it is heartening to see growth.

On a similarly cheery note 18 year olds have not been put off studying creative arts – up 10.68 per cent over last year. I cannot wait to experience the art that the experience of Covid-19 (and the possibility of sustained, intensive, practice during lockdown) will bring about.

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Area graphs by percentage of applications (“market share”) and number of applications (“subject”) by year are available via the tabs.

Always crashing in the same car

Where are people choosing to study? First up, the dynamics between higher education systems are preserved from previous years – Scottish domiciled students overwhelmingly chose to study in Scotland, Northern Irish students tend to want to study in Northern Ireland, and England and Wales pretty much work as a single system.

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A little over a fifth of all applications made from England come from London, just over four per cent come from the North East. The application rate for 18 year olds in London has hit 56 per cent (63 per cent for women!), in the North East it is nearly 34 per cent.

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Over time you can see London pull away from the rest of England – with the North East (particularly) and the South West bubbling along the bottom. This would feel like a good place to think about levelling up – which should start with an understanding of why young people in these regions are less likely to see application to higher education as a viable future.

What kind of providers are being applied to? There’s growth (and sharp growth at that) all over the sector, but “high tariff” providers continue to dominate – especially for non-EU international applications (in 2021 72 per cent of all international applications by the January deadline were to “high tariff” providers). Older (35+) applicants buck this trend, increasingly choosing to study at low tariff providers.

Because the concept of a “high tariff provider” is questionable – there are high tariff courses at low tariff providers and vice versa – there is a limit to how much this data can tell us.

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Breaking glass

It makes more sense to look at application rates for participation measures – there are different numbers of 18 year olds in each quintile of the population. Here I’m looking at rates by POLAR groups since 2006 and there is some good news – rates for quintile 1 (26.4 per cent) and quintile 2 (34.1 per cent) are around the same this year as the rates for quintiles 3 and 4 were in 2006. In 2021 participation in POLAR q5 areas nudges 60 per cent – the overall expansion of higher education has brought benefits in more advantaged areas.

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Here I’m going to get it in the neck for using POLAR rather than the various indices of multiple deprivation. There is a storied discourse here, but in the pure sense of looking at changes in participation there is really very little that does the same job as well – and alternatives (IMDs, the much heralded but strangely absent from this release MEM) present the same issue of hidden pockets in small area and masking regional variation without the precision of just looking at participation.

While we are talking about data decisions, I should also remind you that the picture here for Scotland is limited as many applications to HE study do not appear via UCAS.

What in the world

The story of international recruitment is the story of an increasing reliance on students from China. It became the largest single source of overseas applications (6,280) to the UK in 2011, displacing Ireland – after nearly a decade there are 25,810 applications from China (up from 21, 250 last year). There’s not really a national market of a comparable magnitude – but if you remove China from the equation we have lost just about 11 per cent of international students.

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The proportion of all international students from the EU (still labelled as “excluding UK”) has fallen from 37 per cent last year to 23 per cent this year. Growth in other overseas domiciles masks this to an extent, but ten years ago more than 50 per cent of applications came from the EU – a shocking reversal of fortunes. There were just 26,000 EU applications in 2021 – the lowest number since 2008.

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UK international recruitment has pivoted from partnership with the EU, but not necessarily to a reliance on China. It is very much a case of the long tail, even though it might feel like China is wagging the dog.

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. 

2 responses to “UCAS January application deadline 2021 in depth

  1. Loving the (alien) format. Cheered up my Monday, in addition to the numbers and analysis, of course.

  2. As you mention, Provider Tariff is not very interesting on its own.
    If UCAS would give a region and then within that high/mid/low provider tariff and then within that intl/EU/domestic applicants that might tell us more.

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