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20/20 vision: Aiming high while the population is low

Richard O’Kelly, from our Analysis and Insights Team, looks at applications in the 2020 undergraduate recruitment cycle as of the 15 October deadline.
Posted Thu 7 November 2019 - 09:30

UCAS’ first analysis of applications in the 2020 undergraduate recruitment cycle was published earlier today – the first sign of what promises to be another fascinating year of both applicant and university behaviour.

Once again, applications are up. More applicants are interested in becoming a doctor, vet, dentist, or studying at Oxford or Cambridge – which isn’t a huge surprise considering the overall trend has been going in that direction for these courses for five years straight. Almost 69,000 people applied for courses with a 15 October deadline, up 4% on last year and a new record.

There are, however, some important factors at play this year, which students (and their teachers) have clearly realised and are acting on. We’ve identified a quartet of topics that have a bearing on application stats for 15 October deadline courses, and could indicate behaviours for the rest for the cycle.

Firstly, population. At UCAS, we have consistently highlighted the changing UK demographics, with many universities and colleges feeling the effects of the shrinking numbers of 18 year olds in the UK’s population over the last few years. Each year, there have been 2 – 3% fewer young people than the previous cycle, but we believe this is the final year of decline. With this key population of HE-goers now at the smallest it will be for the foreseeable future, there is a relative abundance of places available. Put yourself in the shoes of a typical 18 year old applicant. If there are fewer of your peers aiming for a place at university, you have nothing to lose, and potentially a highly sought after university place to gain, by using at least one of your five UCAS course options on a really aspirational choice.

Secondly, widening participation efforts are slowly paying off. For the first time, more than 2,300 18 year olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (POLAR4 quintile 1) across the UK applied for an early deadline course. A not insignificant increase of 8%. Messages about the availability, suitability, and benefits of HE are permeating across society.

Numbers of applicants from the most advantaged backgrounds have grown too, but only by 4%. There are 16,010 of them though, so they still outnumber their more disadvantaged counterparts almost seven times over at this stage of the cycle. This gap is largely explainable by differences in attainment across the POLAR quintiles. Given the high entry requirements of these courses, it’s not unexpected that those from advantaged areas will outnumber their less-advantaged counterparts – if we want to see this gap close, we’ll need to see a further focus on narrowing attainment gaps alongside the continued drive for contextual admissions.

Thirdly, additional places on medicine courses. It’s the third straight year of there being more places on offer at medical schools across England. The Westminster Government has made an extra 1,500 undergraduate medical school places available in recent years. This began with courses that started teaching in 2018, and is being introduced in a phased approach that will see a 25% increase in the total number places in England (to 7,500) by the time this year’s applicants start their courses in September. This, in turn, has seen five new medical schools created in Sunderland, Lancashire, Chelmsford, Lincoln, and Canterbury. More places, courses, and providers available equates to more known opportunities, for more people – and, unsurprisingly, more applicants.

Fourth, globalisation. Education is not isolated. Higher education is, and should be, global. The largest proportional growth in applicants so far this year has come from those outside of Europe. A 7% increase takes their total to 14,540. People want to come to the UK for everything our universities, colleges, and culture can offer. The number of EU applicants has fallen very slightly, by 140. In some ways, this number of applicants is surprisingly robust, against a political backdrop (both nationally and internationally) where uncertainly reigns.

What does it mean for the rest of the cycle? Other courses have their application deadline in just over two months on Wednesday 15 January, and we’ll dissect this data in early February. We currently anticipate an increase in the application rate for young people, as the smallest group of 18 year olds for decades take advantage of the opportunities available. Higher tariff providers are likely to continue to increase their share of applications, but to what extent? Medium and lower tariff providers, in particular, will be waiting to see their application numbers, and if they will need to consolidate their efforts to see out this year of scarcity, possibly planning strategically for growth as the number of school-leavers increase in the decade to come.

International applicants will continue to grow, driven by non-EU students. What’s going to happen with EU students? Financial arrangements for them are the same in this cycle as they have been previously, so it appears application numbers will hold up for now.

Whatever’s around the corner in the New Year, it has truly never been a better time to be an applicant to higher education in the UK. And for universities with a hopeful eye on recruitment cycles to come, this is statistically the year most likely to be fallow for applications from domestic applicants, before a projected upturn again throughout the 2020s.

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