Unpacking Welsh regional migration: A deep dive into higher education progression across the Welsh parliamentary regions

Thursday 27 July 2023, Higher education

by Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser, Haleema Masud, Policy Adviser, and Emily Bennett-Cox, Lead Data Scientist, UCAS

Unpacking Welsh regional migration: A deep dive into higher education progression across the Welsh parliamentary regions

Carys Willgoss, Principal Policy Adviser, Haleema Masud, Policy Adviser, and Emily Bennett-Cox, Lead Data Scientist, UCAS

The architecture of higher education (HE) and training in Wales is in a stage of transition. The Commission for Tertiary Education and Research (CTER) was established last year, with the aim of bringing strategy, funding, and oversight of post-16 education and training under one umbrella. With that, demand for HE and training in Wales remains dynamic. A record number of Welsh domiciled students applied to HE in 2022 – a 1.8% growth in comparison to 2021, and a 7.4% increase on pre-pandemic numbers (2019).  

UCAS projects that demand for UK HE and training will continue to grow and, by the end of this decade, there could be up to a million applicants. This ‘journey to a million’ will accelerate competition and may disproportionately affect disadvantaged students who tend to fall at the lower end of the attainment spectrum. While cross-border flows of students across UK nations continues to be a topic of discussion, the current changes taking place in Wales call for further analysis into student movement across Welsh regions. That’s why UCAS has undertaken research by categorising Wales according to its five parliamentary regions, i.e. South Wales Central, South Wales West, South Wales East, Mid and West Wales, and North Wales1.

The regional entry rate gap for Wales is more than eight percentage points 

The region with the highest applicant population is South Wales Central (6,285 in 2022), followed by North Wales (5,190), South Wales West (4,835), South Wales East (4,615), and Mid and West Wales (4,415) respectively. However, such data provides little insight without accounting for population differences. 

By calculating regional entry rates for 18 year olds, we note a regional entry rate gap of 8.2 percentage points between the region with the highest entry rate, South Wales Central (37.9%), relative to the region with the lowest entry rate, South Wales East (29.7%). Evidently, supply is a contributing factor. South Wales East, for example, (campuses aside) does not have any HE providers based in the region2. In comparison, South Wales Central is home to five universities and colleges3.

The age distribution of applicants varies slightly within these regions and also points towards challenges of supply. South Wales East, despite holding the lowest 18 year old entry rate, has the highest proportion of 18 year old applicants within a Welsh region. This could be due to lower participation from mature students owing to their preference for local study.

UCAS applicants can make up to five course application choices in the main scheme. Most Welsh-domiciled applicants use all five options, with students from South Wales Central most likely to do so. 14% of applicants from Mid and West Wales and South Wales West, and 13% from North Wales choose to make only one choice. This choice is mostly used to apply to a provider within their region, reflecting their strong preference to study locally. This is also consistent with the higher likelihood of mature Welsh students making a single choice, as all these regions have the highest proportion of mature applicants.

Of those who choose to remain within Wales, many look to apply and study locally (with a couple of exceptions) 

This research finds that, of those who choose to remain within Wales, Welsh students tend to apply and study locally, with the exception of University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD); despite being based in Mid and West Wales, it received the largest proportion of applications from South Wales West. This is likely due to a UWTSD campus being located in South Wales West. In addition, the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama received the largest proportion of applications from Mid and Wales West, despite being based in South Wales Central. This is likely to be due to its specialised course offering. 

Similarly, Welsh applicants were mostly accepted to a provider within their region (with the obvious exception of South Wales East). When we look at the destination of Welsh placed applicants, we see large numbers of applicants placed in providers in South Wales Central (5,605), heavily driven by those within the region (2,305) and applicants from its neighbouring region, South Wales East (1,470). The availability of transport links between different parts of Wales and England can act as a potential driver behind these trends.  

Geographical proximity is less relevant for those looking to study outside of Wales 

Proximity to home appears less influential for those moving from Wales to England. Despite being geographically closest to most of Wales, the West Midlands records 810 Welsh-domiciled acceptances, compared to 2,345 by North West England (which has the highest number of acceptances of Welsh-domiciled students outside of Wales). However, North Wales is geographically close to North West England, with direct transport links between the two areas, and the highest number of acceptances from a region in Wales to a region in England (1,535).

In comparison, the biggest regional flow from England to Wales is from South West England. This number is predominantly driven by the 2,385 applicants from South West England that choose to study within providers in South Wales Central. South Wales Central also boasts the highest proportion of overseas acceptances within Wales, with six in ten international Welsh acceptances destined for the region. The top intake countries for this region, along with South Wales West, are China and India; whereas, North Wales gets its international intake from Ireland and Germany, and Mid and West Wales attracts applicants from the US and Malaysia. There is an opportunity here for Study Wales and Global Wales to attract students from other parts of the UK and overseas by highlighting the unique experiences these regions and providers have to offer.  

Interest in apprenticeships is highest in the South Wales East 

Akin to the trends we see across the UK, nursing and midwifery, and business and management are the top two subjects4 of choice for applicants across all Welsh regions. More specifically to Wales, this analysis also explored regional demand for courses with ‘Welsh’ in the title: in 2022, 95 applications were made to these courses. Of these, the majority were from North Wales, and Mid and West Wales (25 applications each). This corresponds with North Wales having the highest percentage of people in Wales who are able to speak Welsh.  

With increasing demand for HE and training, students will have to think differently about their post-school choices. Exploring data from UCAS Hub registrations, we found that applicants from South Wales East are most interested in apprenticeships (36%) relative to the Welsh average of 34%. This coincides with South Wales East having no HE providers in the region, and the lowest 18 year old entry rate of any Welsh region. This chimes with previous UCAS research, which found that students interested in apprenticeships are more likely to be from areas with low HE participation.  

Low progression and urban areas represent key widening access challenges

Supporting people from all backgrounds to take the next step in their education and training journey is in UCAS’ DNA. For this research, we considered rurality and the Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD)5 to understand areas where support can be targeted.

In 2022, the entry rate for 18-year-olds was higher for applicants from rural areas, relative to urban areas, across all five Welsh parliamentary regions. The difference in entry rates between rural and urban areas is most stark in North Wales, where the entry rate for 18-year-olds in rural areas is 35.6%, compared to 28% in urban areas. It is interesting to note here that it is the opposite in England, where the entry rate is higher for applicants from urban areas. This may be associated with the overall higher volume of rurality that we see in Wales, with a third of people living in rural areas, compared to a fifth of people living in rural areas in England. Previous research has also found that material deprivation is higher in urban areas in Wales, which corresponds to the comparatively lower progression rates.

The highest proportion of disadvantaged applicants is from South Wales Central, with 24% of applicants falling under WIMD quintile one (the most deprived). In contrast, 7% of applicants from Mid and West Wales are classed in WIMD quintile one. Interestingly, this is also the region with the highest proportion of applicants from rural areas. 71% of applicants were from rural areas in Mid and West Wales, as compared to only 11% of applicants from South Wales Central.

Given that promoting equality of opportunity to HE will fall under the responsibilities of CTER, greater focus should be placed on prioritising disadvantaged and urban areas where entry rates are lower. Welsh universities and colleges can also prioritise these groups, particularly for their local intake, when writing and implementing their fee and access plans.

UCAS continues to support Welsh students to progress into education and training 

With demand, and therefore competition, set to rise, it’s never been more important to support individuals across the UK in making informed decisions. At UCAS, we’re committed to playing our part as a digital careers coach, equalising access for those who lack high-quality in-person careers education. It is only by understanding the data nuances that sit below the surface that we can build a more targeted approach – as such, we hope this embryonic analysis serves as a catalyst for all those who seek to improve outcomes for Welsh students. 

View our Welsh regional analysis factsheet (392.83 KB)  

1 Applicants were mapped to a region in Wales based on their postcode. Parliamentary region was mapped from postcode to ward to Senedd constituency to region, using Office for National Statistics (ONS) geography lookups.

2 University of South Wales has a campus in Newport.

3 Cardiff University, Cardiff Metropolitan University, University of South Wales, Cardiff and Vale College, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

4 Subjects categorised by common aggregation hierarchy (CAH2).

5The Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation (WIMD) is the Welsh Government’s official measure of relative deprivation for small areas in Wales.