How do we make the Journey to a Million a positive one for all?

Ben Jordan, Head of Policy, UCAS

The Journey to a Million is a relatively simple concept – the number of higher education applicants is projected to grow throughout the decade by around a quarter of a million, representing a doubling of numbers since 2006. However, this growth brings with it a million considerations, challenges and opportunities – along with the need for action.  

Over the course of this national debate, UCAS has brought together expert views and opinions to explore the implications the Journey to a Million for the education and training sector, and what action could be undertaken to capitalise on this growth whilst maintaining the interest of students. Overall, the need for response boils down to three key areas: 

  • Helping students navigate the more competitive landscape 
  • Creating opportunities 
  • Strengthening widening access  

Helping students navigate the more competitive landscape

The Journey to a Million will bring with it increased competition across all post-secondary choices. As we have already begun to see, offer rates, particularly at the most selective institutions, will likely reduce. Equally, at present one in three students receive five offers – as competition grows, we would expect this to reduce. If behaviours remain the same, the risk presented by the Journey to a Million is that the increase in applicants results in an increase in disappointment.   

The increase in competition will require advisers and UCAS to adjust the guidance they provide, and some students may have to think about their choices differently, considering a broader range of courses, universities, and pathways. But how do we support them in doing so?  

Transparency and personalisation will be central to this. UCAS has recently launched its Entry Grades report to increase transparency on the range of attainment accepted by universities – something that has been recommended by both the Universities UK Fair Admissions Reviewi, and Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.ii This tool is intended to support advisers and students in making more informed choices through a better understanding of the currency of their qualifications – something that will become more critical as competition increases. Personalisation also becomes more key as the diversity of the student population grows – the UCAS Hub, and Clearing Plus, are innovations in the student experience that will add significant value to as competition grows.

A key step here is bringing parity to the way students explore their choices, creating visibility across the full range of options. In February 2023, UCAS announced an acceleration of its apprenticeship ambitions.iii From this autumn, UCAS will build on its existing offer, expanding its service so that young people can see apprenticeship and traditional undergraduate degree options side-by-side. From later in 2024, students will then be able to apply for apprenticeship opportunities via UCAS Hub, alongside their other undergraduate choices.  

Co-ordination will be key. In any major shift in education, different schools and colleges respond at different speeds based on resource and expertise. Given the growth in competition over the next few years, there is a risk that those schools with less careers resource fall further behind. UCAS would recommend the establishment of a national careers education panel to co-ordinate response to shifting market dynamics and promote higher quality provision – ensuring all schools and colleges have access to the same intelligence and advice. Given the key role formative years play, we would also recommend the expansion of Gatsby benchmarks to primary education.iv For all of this, the current and future skills needs of the economy must be at its core.  

Creating opportunities

The Journey to a Million presents a once in a generation economic opportunity to tackle skills gaps, but with this is also the risk of wasted talent if we do not create attractive options for these individuals. 

The majority of students apply for courses that are not subject to strict number controls. As we observed in the pandemic, universities and colleges are able to flex their capacity should it be required, and I am confident that HE providers across the land are currently considering what the Journey to a Million means for them.  

There are parts of the sector where number controls are in place. In Scotland, institutions are restricted in the number of home domiciled students they can recruit. The Journey to a Million presents additional complexities here – in Scotland we project an increase in 18-year-old applicants applying to higher education, but a reduction in total applicants. 

However, this is within the context of overall UK growth and rising international demand, such complexity highlights the need for flexibility in response across the sector.  

Medicine courses are also subject to a form of number controls. Medicine is currently a highly sought-after course, with 24,000 applicants leading to 10,000 placed students. With the Journey to a Million, we project that medicine applications could increase by 15,000 by 2027 – over 14%. This increase in demand presents a once in a generation opportunity to consider how the NHS can benefit from the Journey to a Million, tackling staff shortages through the expansion of medical student places – as recommended by the Medical Schools Council./p>

In recent years we have seen a growth in demand for apprenticeships, with 40% of students interested in undergraduate options also interested in apprenticeships – around 430,00 students. However, the number of starts for young learners remains low – with the number of Level 4 and above starts for under-19 year olds less than 5,000.v As we progress through the Journey to a Million, and UCAS brings more parity to the way students explore these options, we project this interest will increase further – with over half a million students potentially interested in this route by 2030. This will only increase the competition for apprenticeships unless we see a significant expansion of opportunities.

Strengthening widening access

The Journey to a Million presents a multi-layered story in relation to widening access, with both risks and opportunities.  

As we see growth in the overall cohort, we project we will see growth in applicants from all backgrounds. What we observe is that the application rate for POLAR4 Quintile 1 (those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds) students could reach 35%, an increase in 5.6 percentage points. For POLAR4 Quintile 5, we project an increase of 5.1 percentage points to 65%. Therefore, we could see a slight narrowing of the application gap between the most and least advantaged.  

However, the big challenge here is how we manage this growth in disadvantaged applicants. If offer making behaviour remains as it currently is, what we project is that we’ll see a widening of the offer rate gap. Generally speaking, offer rates will likely decline, but our projections indicate that it could be disadvantaged students that miss out – with a greater proportion of these students getting one or less offers, and a smaller proportion receiving three or more.  

However, this assumes that behaviour does not change. A change in offer making strategies by university and colleges, such as the increased use of contextual information or more targeted offer making to certain cohorts, could reverse some of the risks we observe. Similarly, further consideration of the wider adoption of access thresholds or minimum entry requirements (visibly lower entry requirements for disadvantaged students) – as referenced in the Universities UK Fair Admissions Reviewvi – would support disadvantaged students in recognising pathways available to them.  

Outreach will also play a key role – as competition increases, outreach efforts will need to be enhanced to ensure disadvantaged students are not pushed out. Our soon to be launched Outreach Connection Services looks to enhance the visibility of these schemes, whilst also helping universities and colleges target hard to reach areas – and we would recommend all outreach and preparatory activities offered by universities and charities are listed within this. Ultimately, the strategies for the recruitment of disadvantaged students, such as revised Access and Participation Plan and Outcome Agreements, need to be explicitly framed in the context of the changing demographic landscape.  

An often-misunderstood area is that similar challenges in participation also exist with apprenticeships. The Sutton Trust report that twice as many degree apprentices are from the wealthiest areas compared to the poorestvii

indicating disparities in entry by background. As we approach the Journey to a Million, competition across all post-secondary routes will increase, and students will increasingly look at the full range of options – and these options need to be accessible to all.  

There are a range of initiatives that could be undertaken to support widening access to apprenticeships. For example, there would be merit in exploring whether an Access and Participation Plan like model for levy-paying employers – outlining how they will recruit students from a range of disadvantaged backgrounds – could work in setting targets and benchmarks for widening access to apprenticeships. This could be coupled with funding, potentially from the levy, being used by employers to support access and outreach activities – all of which UCAS would display via its Outreach Connection Service to maximise engagement. Finally, the use of contextual information within the recruitment process could further support the recruitment of students from a diverse background.  

The post-16 sector is beginning to feel the pressure of this growth, with early signs of changes in behaviour, with offer rates below pre-pandemic levels. However, it is not a new challenge in education. Cast your mind back 10 years ago, and almost every news bulletin would have carried a feature on the increasing pressure on nursery and primary school places. More recently, the pandemic brought with it an increase in accepted applicants. The education and training sector has accommodated changes in shifts in demand in the past, and through joined up planning, action and foresight, I am confident will be able to do so again. And just imagine what we can achieve if we do? Reduced skills gaps, more equal access, and wider opportunity for all. A million reasons why it’d be worth it.

i Universities UK (2020), Fair Admissions Review.

iiCommission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (April 2021), Summary of recommendations.

iiiUCAS (February 2023), Apprenticeships boosted under plans to broaden UCAS.

ivUCAS (2021), What Influences the Choices School Leavers Make?

vDepartment for Education (January 2023), Apprenticeships and traineeships statistics 2022/23.

viUniversities UK (2020), Fair Admissions Review.

viiCarl Cullinane and Katherine Doherty, Sutton Trust (May 2020), Degree Apprenticeships: Levelling Up?

Ben Jordan

Head of Policy, UCAS

Ben has been at UCAS for over a decade and has been described as a ‘leading figure of higher education admissions policy’, with his knowledge in this area ‘second to none’. During his time at UCAS, Ben has led the response and engagement around every major political event that could impact on student progression, including Brexit, admissions reform, qualification reform, Scottish independence, general elections, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, which involved forming part of three separate ministerial taskforces.

Ben has also overseen the delivery of UCAS’ key policy outputs, including 'Unpacking Qualification Reform', the first major report on schools’ response to qualification reform, 'Where Next?', a leading piece on student decision making, 'What happened to the COVID cohort?', the definitive assessment of the impact of the pandemic on student progression, 'Starting the Conversation', UCAS’ landmark piece on student mental health, and most recently, 'Next Steps', a first of its kind report looking at the sentiment of LGBT+ students as they progress to university or college. Outside of work, Ben is on the board of StandAlone, a charity supporting estranged individuals, as well an awarding organisation.