UCAS January deadline, 2024

It's a decent year for January deadline applications, but some underlying trends are cause for concern. David Kernohan has the data

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

The number of England-domiciled 18 year old January deadline applicants rose by around 0.7 per cent over last year, while the number of applicants from overseas also continued to grow.

This morning’s UCAS January deadline data reveals that total applicant numbers are down slightly (about 0.2 per cent on 2023), continuing a trend that has persisted over the last three years. This decline is driven by a fall in the number of mature student applicants, with the number of 18 year old applicants just 2,000 short of the 2022 record.

Despite predictions to the contrary, this suggests that demand for university education among school leavers is still very strong. However, the declining numbers of mature applicants (continuing a two-year trend) should be a concern for a government focused on upskilling and mid-life career changes.

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In other words, there is no simplistic narrative that can explain the many complex ways in which demand for higher education is changing. January applicants represent about 70 per cent of the cycle total (and 70 per cent of acceptances), though this proportion has declined in recent years as it has become more popular (particularly among mature students) to enter the UCAS system in June or later.

Participation in the nations

The best served (POLAR4 quintile 5) areas see a 57.20 per cent 18 year old application rate across the UK, with the least well served areas (quintile 1) see 26.40 per cent of 18 year olds apply to UCAS by the January deadline.

This conceals a number of national trends. In England application rates are growing or stable in every quintile other than quintile 2, while in Wales we see sharp multi-cycle drops in quintiles 1 and 5. Wales saw a higher pandemic peak, and thus a sharper drop, in applications – but it is not clear what is going on at either end of the POLAR spectrum given that the population is growing in each case.

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In recent years Scotland has favoured indices of multiple deprivation as an access measure (SIMD). By 2030 20 per cent of all entrants should come from SIMD quintile 1 (the most deprived areas) – in 2024 12.5 per cent of all applicants hailed from theses area, making for the second highest application rate on record at 20.5 per cent.

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This chart also shows applicants by the relevant IMD measure for other UK nations – the gloom continues in Wales, while England and Northern Ireland see relative stasis when compared to previous years.

Application destinations

High tariff providers (those who ask for the best A level performance) continue to dominate applications, both overall and from overseas – some 70 per cent of all overseas applications go to high tariff providers. Meanwhile low tariff providers bear the brunt of the fall in mature applications while also experiencing the second year-on-year drop in a row among applications from 18 year olds.

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And 37 per cent of all applications from English-domiciled applicants went to high tariff providers – the highest on record.

In terms of subjects of study we see strong growth in applications to law, computing, and engineering courses – subjects allied to medicine continue a slow decline in popularity but still represent the most common subject to apply to, just edging out business. Arts courses see stability in application numbers, while social sciences experience a slight decline. Despite government intentions to the contrary, the attractiveness of medicine and education courses appears to be waning.

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International student applications are dominated by business subjects, whereas subjects allied to medicine are by far the most popular among mature applicants.

Here’s what international student recruitment looks like on a country level. You’ll note a sharp, exchange-rate driven, decline in Nigeria, and steady growth in China.

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There’s clearly a lot of trends happening at the same time – but for me the decline in the attractiveness of subjects allied to medicine (which also explains the decline in mature applicants) is the most concerning. It is easy to consider nursing and healthcare subjects, with a reliance on placement learning and non-traditional students, as outside the mainstream of university life – but especially among locally focused providers who specialise in these areas we are faced with an existential risk.

Local mature healthcare students contribute hugely to the NHS locally while also experiencing personal social mobility. Healthcare recruitment is something that the UK should be getting right, given pressures on NHS staffing – unfortunately these same pressures are making placements harder to get and careers less attractive.

4 responses to “UCAS January deadline, 2024

  1. I wonder how many nursing and allied health student are going through apprenticeships and other non-UCAS routes? Would this explain some of the decline in numbers?

    1. not many. it is so small that it won’t impact. In Scotland the declines are very significant, and we don’t have apprenticeship routes (and a £10,000 bursary)

  2. The UCAS January data reflects enduring demand among 18-year-olds for UK university education, contrasted by a troubling decline in mature applicants. This trend, alongside the growth in international enrolments, underscores the need for a nuanced approach to recruitment strategies, especially in light of global shifts in student mobility and financial sustainability challenges within the sector. Diversifying source markets and enhancing support for mature and international students are crucial steps forward.

  3. Notably, the sharp decline in Nigerian student deposits and the fluctuating interest from Indian and Chinese students reveal the sector’s vulnerability to international market dynamics. it’s clear that the UK’s overreliance on these key markets could pose risks amidst changing global mobility patterns and immigration policies. Adapting strategies to diversify source countries and address affordability concerns will be crucial for sustaining the UK’s appeal as a premier study destination.

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