Progression to HE for Welsh Domiciled Students - what did UCAS learn in 2022?

Thursday 19 January 2023, Higher education

by Haleema Masud, Policy Adviser, UCAS

Progression to HE for Welsh Domiciled Students - what did UCAS learn in 2022?

Haleema Masud, Policy Adviser, UCAS

Progression into higher education (HE) and training is a major life event for students, with qualifications the currency. That’s why UCAS responded to the recent consultation on GCSE reform by Qualifications Wales. Doing so gave us an opportunity to highlight our engagement this year with Welsh students and providers, as reflected in our end of cycle data for 2022 HE applications.

With students sitting exams for the first time since 2019, a record number applied for universities and colleges in the UK in 2022. This blog shares key insights from that data, and from our consultation response.

Highlights from the 2022 applications cycle

As the gateway to UK HE, UCAS has been supporting students and providers in Wales in making informed choices for 30 years. In 2022, UCAS supported 25,380 Welsh students apply to UK HE, and 86,225 students in applying to Welsh providers. Below is a summary of key activities in Wales this cycle:

  • Near record demand from Welsh domiciled 18-year-olds: The Welsh entry rate reached 32.4% in 2022, slightly down on 2021 but 2.6 percentage points up on the last examination year (2019).
  • Mature Welsh domiciled students engaging with UK HE have increased. Between 2021 and 2022, there was an increase of 2.3% in applicants aged 21 and above. This positive growth cannot be found elsewhere in the UK.
  • There has been a significant increase in Welsh domiciled applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds: Asian applicants are up 10.6% since 2021 and Black applicants are up 15.4%.
  • There has been a growth in students applying from disadvantaged areas. In 2022, Welsh domiciled applicants from most disadvantaged areas increased by 2.6%.
  • Welsh domiciled applicants with a declared disability have increased. In 2022, 16.0% of Welsh applicants declared a disability, as compared to 13.6% in 2021.
  • More Welsh domiciled applicants applied across the border: 19,765 applicants applied to other UK nations; 17,895 to England, 1,630 to Scotland, and 240 to Northern Ireland.
  • A quarter of Welsh domiciled applicants held a combination of A levels and Welsh Baccalaureate: 6,395 applied with the most common combination of qualifications for this group. One in five (5,345) applicants from Wales held A levels only.

Progression to HE and training is not a linear journey: UCAS evidence in light of upcoming GCSE curriculum reform in Wales

Progression to HE and training in the UK does not take place in a vacuum. Every student has a unique journey from school and/or college into HE and training. As such, the reimagined qualifications in Wales will be critical to individuals’ onward progression. 

GCSE performance and choices directly and indirectly influence admissions for HE and apprenticeships

UCAS finds strong links between A levels predicted grades (used in admissions decisions) and GCSE attainment. GCSEs can also be used by university and college’s admissions departments in demonstrating English and numeracy skills. Moreover, GCSEs can play a key role in obtaining professional accreditation, and in securing apprenticeship and employment opportunities.

Maintaining portability and currency of the Welsh GCSE qualifications 

Universities, colleges, and employers are a key partner of the new qualifications and must be fully informed of the GCSE changes, both inside and outside of Wales. UCAS has well established links and reputation with providers and employers and can support Qualifications Wales in maintaining the portability of Welsh GCSEs across the UK.

Influences on and impact of GCSE subject choices

UCAS’ Where Next research on school leavers highlighted the influence parents, carers, teachers, friends, and employment prospects can have when selecting GCSE subjects. The subject and provider choices available to students can also become limited due to decisions made at GCSE level, especially for subjects like Medicine, Economics, Maths, Languages etc. that have fixed prerequisites.  

Disadvantaged students need more support

Different groups of students have different challenges that need contextualised support and intervention. Disadvantaged students are likely to start thinking about HE later than their advantaged peers. Student background and characteristics also influence university and colleges choices and progression. For example, disabled students are more likely to defer entry to HE. Through UCAS’ Fair Access Programme launched in 2021, we continue to build an understanding of the experiences of different disadvantaged, tailoring support to their decision-making journey.

Comprehensive CIAG is the bottom line 

Changes to progression pathways due to GCSE curriculum reforms, even with the intention of them being more inclusive and adaptable need to be understood by the whole sector. With its well-established links with students, universities, colleges, training providers, and employers, UCAS can support Qualifications Wales in successful implementation of the curriculum reform, particularly in its intention of ensuring successful progression to HE and training. This can be done through comprehensive careers information, advice, and guidance (CIAG).

As the most cited source of information and guidance for applications to HE and apprenticeships in the UK, UCAS looks forward to working with Qualifications Wales to understand the impact of the reformed curriculum on progression pathways and what it means for students, the HE sector, and employers.

What next? ‘Journey to a Million’ and heightened competition

UCAS projects that by 2026, there could be up to a million applicants to UK HE with Welsh domiciled students applying to UK HE expected to increase to c29,000. Welsh students will enter HE and training with the new qualifications for the first time in 2029 in a highly competitive admissions market. The squeeze of this competition is likely to be felt more by disadvantaged students, who are commonly at the lower end of the attainment spectrum. 

In spring 2023, UCAS will be launching a collection of essays on this ‘Journey to a Million’ applicants, highlighting the challenges and opportunities that this growth presents for the UK HE sector. We will continue to work closely with our Welsh colleagues in supporting fairness in students progressing to HE or apprenticeships in this changing landscape.