How will The Million apply in 2030?

Kim Eccleston, Head of Strategy and Reform, UCAS
Take a moment to think back to early 2015. The Competition and Markets Authority published its advice for higher education (HE) providers, spurring universities and colleges across the UK into action.i Legal advice was sought, working groups were set up, prospectuses were scrutinised and offer letters re-drafted. The spotlight on how consumer protection law was applicable to HE admissions was shining brighter, and it was impossible to attend a conference plenary without hearing parallels of this decision and other big purchasing decisions, ranging from sofas to a house. The rationale makes perfect sense – HE is a big investment, possibly the single biggest investment a student will have made in their lifetime to date; therefore, a comprehensive understanding of what a student can expect is undeniably reasonable. However, what’s interesting is that back in 2015 we didn’t really spend so much time talking about the process of buying though – how you actually find out about the course in the first place, what information needs to be exchanged, and how competition for places is managed. If we think about students navigating HE applications in 2030, these are critical aspects of the conversation. So – I invite you to join me in considering a new analogy: the ice hockey jersey. 

Considering competition

Hockey jerseys are my guilty pleasure. Special editions, or game worn jerseys (or both!) can be a holy grail for fans.  Motivations will be different – some will want that specific design from that specific season for that specific player. Others may be more flexible – it's the design they want, and they don’t mind which player’s jersey they end up getting. For others the player might be the most important thing – and as much as they’d like a jersey, a game used stick could be just as compelling an artefact. So far so good – easy to see how these motivations translate to HE options. Some students will be set on course A at institution B and nothing else will do. Others will have a discipline in mind but be open to different education providers. Some may be actively looking at multiple routes including degree apprenticeships to meet their aims. Where hockey jerseys beat sofas or houses is that they’re relatively rare – often either in short supply or genuinely one of a kind, unique items, meaning there can be competition among potential buyers. As student numbers climb and competition for places intensifies, the idea that we can compare a student accessing HE to walking into a shop and “simply” exchanging a large amount of money for the sofa shows strain.

Unfortunately, while there are a few different models typically used for selling jerseys, none of them are perfect – there's no “lift and shift” solution we can apply to HE admissions. There are lessons we can take though. Looking at the three main models, there are: 

  • Auctions. These are generally quite stressful for would-be buyers who are watching the clock tick down to see if they are still winning; they don’t guarantee a sale – the opening bid may be too high, or if the software managing the auction is limited, the auction is open to malicious bids the “buyer” has no intention of honouring; and of course, auctions benefit those who can bid the most.  
  • Raffles. Ostensibly much fairer than auctions, especially if limitations are put in place on how many tickets can be bought. One, fixed price for everyone and an equal chance of success. Less agency on the buyer’s part though – harder to target a specific design or player in a raffle. You must hope that the one you really want is the one you ultimately win.  
  • First come first served sales. Fixed price? Yes. Ability to target the one you want? a point. You have to know the sale is happening though, and you have to be well prepared enough to be first in the queue. Prior knowledge and experience of the process is king here – so if it’s your first attempt at acquiring a jersey there’s a good chance someone else will beat you to it. 

Principles to aid The Million

What do we learn?  There are some clear principles we need to support students as the demand grows.  

  • The journey must be fair. Not only must we avoid monetary or entry grade inflation to manage demand; we must also ensure that the importance of applicant context continues to feature in admissions. 
  • Agency is important too. As much as I’d be less likely to wear the jersey of a player I didn’t rate very much, students’ engagement will be shaped by how positive they feel about their place of study: expectation and emotion shaping the experience. 
  • Decisions need to be well informed, with that depending not on experience and sharp elbows, but on freely available, high quality, digestible information advice and guidance. Everyone should have easy access to, and know, the rules of the game. 

Optimising the application process

While I’m not sure what buying jerseys will look like in 2030, there are reasons to be optimistic for students’ experiences of applying to HE. As UCAS Head of Policy Ben Jordan outlined in an earlier essay, UCAS is very mindful of its role in widening access as we approach 2030. New questions introduced for the 2023 entry cohortii, and a reformed reference process launching for 2024 entry which makes context setting and the provision of supportive information easier than ever before set a clear direction of travel.iii Regardless of background, students applying in 2030 will know that a range of data will be available to help education providers make their decisions, and critically they will be confident that these data are used to support, not undermine, applications.  

The information available to help students understand and navigate their journey to HE is transforming. Already, students can now access a range of tools on that help them identify the growing options for HE, with information on apprenticeships and traditional courses side by side. The traditional suite of course information is being enhanced with additional insight – such as the Entry Grades report which is currently in development. This will show students the grades previous entrants to courses were accepted with, helping them appreciate not just the requirements or typical offer levels, but the nuances around how much room for manoeuvre providers have for “near misses”. Completing an application will be simpler than ever – changes in future cycles to the personal statement model will provide students with a much clearer view of what is it education providers want to know about them.iv Understanding the routes and the processes, and curating that basket of options most likely to result in a positive outcome will be the norm for all students. 

Student agency will grow. The introduction of “Decline My Place” in 2019 transformed students’ ability to take control of their applications and release themselves into Clearing to take up an alternative opportunity if their circumstances or ambitions changed. In the summer of 2023, for students who do not have a final decision from universities or colleges on results day, those universities and colleges will be able to provide a reason for the delayed decision through This transparency will enable students to make an informed decision to either continue waiting, take action to expedite the decision if they can, or take positive action to explore other options. Looking further ahead, UCAS will be exploring with the sector the efficacy of mechanisms such as UCAS Extra and the Insurance Choice; testing whether these are fully supporting student choice. By 2030 students will feel actively engaged at each stage of the admissions journey, knowing that they have the power to determine their future destinations. 

A brighter horizon

I rather suspect that in 2030 hockey fans will still be mulling over the challenges of getting that special jersey you have your heart set on. There’s no real drive to change the status quo, nor a community that can really drive any significant change. But for anyone likely to be applying for HE in 2030, the prospects are brighter. There is a sector that is committed to coming together to keep improving their experiences. There are positive changes already underway. As the routes into and through HE diversify, and the demographics of the student population become broader as we head to 2030, so too will the admissions journey transform. Students, both domestic and international alike, will be able to find out about their range of opportunities in one place, freely access a range of tools to assess which routes are best for them, and progress through a transformed application with reformed references and personal statements in a way which enables them to exercise choice and achieve a positive outcome. In both cases, supply might not match demand, but for students there will be a system giving them transparency, support, and a voice.

iCompetition and Markets Authority (March 2015), CMA advises universities and students on consumer law.

iiUCAS (April 2022), 2023 entry: New questions to support widening access.

iiiUCAS, Changes to undergraduate references for 2024 entry. Accessed May 11th, 2023.

ivUCAS (January 2023), Future of Undergraduate Admissions.

Kim Eccleston

Head of Strategy and Reform, UCAS

Kim is responsible for strategic oversight of UCAS’ Corporate Strategy, leading on the continual reform that the strategy sets out. Kim joined UCAS at the end of 2019 having previously been Head of Undergraduate and Postgraduate Admissions at the University of Warwick for five years. During this time, Kim represented the sector in roles including member of the Clearing Working Group and Chair of the UCAS Undergraduate Advisory Group. Kim has worked in various areas in Higher Education administration, including roles in university governance, and in outreach and widening participation, and has a particular interest in process review and efficiency. Kim graduated with a degree in Mathematics in 2005 as one of the first generation in her family to access Higher Education.