A year in the life of a data scientist at UCAS

Tuesday 5 July 2022, UCAS advice

by Emily Bennett

A year in the life of a data scientist at UCAS

As a Data Scientist, my passion is using data to tell stories and drive change.
Emily Bennett

In the Policy Unit at UCAS, I’ve had the opportunity to lead our research and identify key insights on student progression, and help tell their stories. Over the past twelve months, we have delved into the depths of the data held here at UCAS to pick out behaviours and traits of applicants to UK higher education that haven’t been explored before.

Back in September 2021, we took a closer look at applicants who shared an LGBT+ identity in the UCAS application form – a first of its kind release. This piece of work provided brand new insights into the differences, and similarities, between LGBT+ applicants and their non-LGBT+ peers, including their experience in education to date, their likelihood to share a mental health condition, and their likelihood to be from less advantaged backgrounds. It also highlighted the more challenging experiences had by transgender applicants, both at school and how these affected their expectations of starting higher education.

Our next project took a different steer. With the significant growth in demand for nursing courses, inspired by the efforts of key workers during the pandemic, we explored the ‘future nurses’ of our workforce, and how aspiring nurses are extremely confident about their choice of profession and pave the way for diversity and widening participation in higher education. The finding that there is an underrepresentation of future nurses in the South of England has resulted in a series of roundtables hosted by UCAS, to discuss ways that we and the health and care sector can work together to improve supply and demand issues in the region; an issue that may never have been addressed without the resource dedicated to this research.

Next on our agenda was a piece of research exploring the mindset of internationally mobile students – not just those looking to study in the UK, but also elsewhere in the world. For the first time, we had a glimpse at how the UK is valued within the competitive market of global higher education, as well as taking a closer look at the differences between applicants to the UK from different countries. For example, applicants from Nigeria tend to be older and more focused on how their degree will aid them in their future career, whereas Chinese applicants apply to the most prestigious universities and have high quality in mind when making their choices.

Which leads us to our most recent project, a deep-dive into those applicants who feel comfortable sharing a disability in their UCAS application form. The report brings to light the wide array of experiences and behaviours of people with different types of impairment or condition, such as the fact that applicants with physical impairments or challenges with mobility, while achieving higher than average A level grades, are less likely to be placed at the top universities, potentially due to their preference to study closer to home. One of the most striking findings for me is the intersectionality of care experience with disability, finding that applicants with social, behavioural or communication impairments are more than twice as likely to have experience in care than non-disabled applicants. This finding begs the question – is there a causal link between these two characteristics, or does sharing one simply increase the likelihood of sharing the other?

Interactions between characteristics is a hot topic for UCAS, and findings such as this only emphasise the importance of doing more research of this nature; it will continue to be a core area of focus for our work. Looking at the data this way not only helps the sector understand applicants better, it also spotlights the hidden challenges and barriers we can work together to remove. It’s been an exciting 12 months, and yet there’s so much more data to be explored – an absolute dream for a data scientist.