What do falling undergraduate numbers tell us?
There’s two ways to read the release of January deadline application numbers from UCAS.
The first is to see downward movement as a regression to the trend – the “old normal”, as it were, in the first cycle unaffected by Covid restrictions since 2020.
This is the way Clare Marchant at UCAS would see it:
“Demand for undergraduate courses during Covid-19 was unprecedented and so a slight recalibration in the number of applicants might be expected, particularly for courses related to nursing and healthcare which saw exceptional growth as students were inspired by the pandemic to pursue these professions
It is the other reading that will dominate today’s headlines. A downward tick plays into a number of wider narratives about a declining interest in university study, the rise of other forms of education and training for young adults – including apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications. Possibly even “go woke, go broke” will make an appearance.
But what is really going on?
At a top level applications from UK domiciled 18 year olds (the overwhelming majority of undergraduate applications) stands at 314,660 as of the January deadline in 2023 – an application rate of 41.50 per cent (down from 43.40 per cent last year, and from 42.60 the year before). This is still the third highest application rate on record by some margin – and demographic growth makes it the second highest on record (as UCAS notes, behind last year). But interesting – re-applier numbers are up, with 31,180 reapplications from 19 year olds being the highest on record.
That drop of around two percentage points is broadly comparable across IMD quintiles for 18 year olds – there’s no evidence that the less well off are being discouraged from university study, or that those from advantaged backgrounds are seeking alternatives. A consistent pattern like this does point to a reversion rather than an external pressure.
Internationally speaking – a decline in applications from China and Hong Kong is balanced by strong performance elsewhere. Applications from India, Nigeria, and Turkey are notably buoyant.
Examining tariff groups offers a bit of a surprise – application to higher tariff providers among UK 18 year olds are down just over 1 per cent, whereas for lower tariff providers the drop is more like 3.5 per cent. Middle tariff providers hold relatively steady. The robustness of high tariff provider performance, and the majority of the drop in lower tariff applications, can be seen particularly in England.
At a subject level there’s an 8.6 per cent drop in applications to subjects allied to medicine (primarily visible in applications to nursing) – and a worrying 15.6 per cent drop in applications to education and teaching courses. The return of the cap on medical and dental places sees a 6.4 per cent drop in applications. All of these subjects saw a growth in demand during the Covid-19 restrictions – it is arguable that we may be seeing an unwinding of that effect in 2023 data. Computing is a notable growth subject – up 8.7 per cent over last year, and 10 per cent among UK 18 year olds.
Of course applications are not the same thing as placed students. Putting in a UCAS application is a (relatively) cheap way to dip your toe into the higher education water – it will be placement. It may be that we are seeing an unwinding of the pandemic effect, and it may be that this is overlaid with a wider change in the nature of applicant demand. The January deadline is an interesting peep into the future – the first real data point will come when Clearing opens.