Growing demand for higher education could boost equality of access for the most disadvantaged students

A projected 30% increase in applicants by 2030 could open up significant opportunities for equality of access to higher education, according to UCAS.
Posted Thu 22 June 2023 - 00:01

Progress in widening access has led to a record number of UK 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (POLAR4 quintile 1) being accepted into university – a total of 31,890 students last year.

As part of its forecasts for up to a million higher education (HE) applicants by the end of the decade, UCAS is today highlighting how the sector can capitalise on this growing demand to ensure that UK HE remains accessible to the most disadvantaged students.

New UCAS research shows the application gap between the most and least advantaged applying to university or college is forecast to narrow. The application rate for the most disadvantaged students could reach 35%, up from 29.4% in 2022, while their most advantaged peers (POLAR4 Quintile 5) could increase to 65%, up from 60.1% in 2022.

Yet the analysis does also show that increased demand and competition for places could see more of the most disadvantaged students receiving no offers – 8.6% in 2030 compared to 2.3% in 2022. Today, one in 16 of the most disadvantaged students get just one offer but in 2030 this could increase to one in six, with the proportion receiving three or more offers reducing.

This presents a significant opportunity to further reduce the gap in participation through changes to current offer-making behaviour, such as targeted offer-making strategies.

Clare Marchant, UCAS Chief Executive, said: “Widening access is a key priority for UCAS and while we have seen huge strides in participation across UK higher education, our national debate has brought into sharp focus the challenges surrounding growth of competition and availability of options to students.

“Adapting offer-making behaviours will help mitigate the risk presented by the Journey to a Million and an increase in applicants resulting in an increase in disappointment, with the potential for those at the lower end of the attainment spectrum being squeezed out.

“The Journey to a Million does present new opportunities however, and with timely collective action we can maintain significant progress in widening access through efforts including targeted offer-making strategies, minimum entry requirements for underrepresented cohorts and outreach work.”

UCAS’ national debate on the projected Journey to a Million, published in partnership with Knight Frank and Unite Students, has focused on the future of access to HE and how up to one million people could apply to UK HE in a single year by 2030.

Today’s final contributions to UCAS’ national debate on the projected Journey to a Million discuss:

  • ‘We must continue to campaign for those qualifications so often disparaged or misunderstood by politicians. Dismantling them will undermine the government’s so-called levelling up agenda and leave many young people who were on the cusp of progression to HE feeling abandoned.’ – Geoff Barton, General Secretary, The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) 
  • ‘The education and training sector has accommodated changes in shifts in demand in the past, and through joined up planning, action and foresight, I am confident will be able to do so again.   And just imagine what we can achieve if we do? Reduced skills gaps, more equal access, and wider opportunity for all. A million reasons why it’d be worth it.‘ – Ben Jordan, Head of Policy, UCAS
  • ‘Diversity of offer is the best way to ensure the diversity of participants we need to aim for.’ – David Hughes, CBE, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges (AOC)
  • ‘We can’t all just continue to grow, otherwise we will lose the uniqueness of the experience we offer.’ – Anthony McClaran, Vice-Chancellor St Mary’s University Twickenham and Chair of GuildHE
  • Richard Smith, Chief Executive at Unite Students, said: “It is vital that higher education remains diverse and inclusive, developing the knowledge, skills and talents of people from all parts of society. As the UK’s largest provider of student accommodation, we are actively working towards an accessible and inclusive living experience, including our recently published reports: An asset not a problem: Meeting the needs of neurodivergent students and Living Black at University and the subsequent launch of the Unite Students Commission on Living Black at University. We established and support the Unite Foundation, an independent charity now in its eleventh year, which has provided over 600 care-experienced and estranged students with access to university through rent-free accommodation and wrap-around support."
  • Merelina Sykes, Joint Head of Student Property at Knight Frank, said: “Accommodation is a central part of what contributes to a highly positive and rewarding university experience for students. Demand for purpose-built student accommodation is growing, meanwhile what students expect of their living experience is also evolving. Maintaining an open dialogue and strong partnerships with higher education providers will be essential as we journey towards one million applicants by 2030. We are proud to have been invited by UCAS to join this important conversation in partnership with Unite.”

​​​​​​Plus thinking from:

  • Ben Jordan, Head of Policy, UCAS on How do we make the Journey to a Million a positive one for all?
  • Geoff Barton, General Secretary, The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) on What does the Journey to a Million mean for the school sector? 
  • David Hughes, CBE, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges (AOC) on What does the Journey to a Million mean for colleges?     
  • Ginny Page, Director of Education Programmes, Gatsby Foundation on What does the Journey to a Million mean for technical education?           
  • Anthony McClaran, Vice-Chancellor St Mary’s University Twickenham and Chair of GuildHE on What will an increase in demand mean for smaller and specialist higher education institutions?
  • Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, President and Vice-Chancellor and Professor April McMahon, Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students, University of Manchester on What does the Journey to a Million mean for the University of Manchester?
  • Dr Diana Beech, Chief Executive Officer, London Higher on What does the Journey to a Million mean for London?
  • Professor Sir Gerry McCormac, FRSE, FSA, FRSA, FHEA, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Stirling on What does the Journey to a Million mean for students, universities, and the wider HE sector in Scotland?   
  • Nichola Hay MBE, Chair of the Board, Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) on What does the Journey to a Million mean for lifelong learning?   ​​​​​
  • Kim Eccleston, Head of Strategy and Reform, UCAS on How will the Million apply in 2030?
  • Dr Katie Petty-Saphon, Chief Executive, Medical Schools Council (MSC) on What does the Journey to Million mean for medical school expansion?
  • John Cope, Executive Director of Strategy, Policy, and Public Affairs, UCAS on Where do we go from 2030? 

To read ALL these contributions to UCAS’ national debate on Journey to a Million please visit What do we do now? 

For more information, please contact UCAS Press Office at which is monitored regularly.


Notes for editors

About UCAS’ Journey to a Million: 5 Big Challenges & 50 Big Thinkers National Debate

As the UK’s largest and most established admissions body for UK HE for 30 years, UCAS has access to unique application and entry data which has led to this campaign. You can find UCAS’ projections and modelling on the Journey to a Million and thinking already published here

50 key thinkers have contributed to the debate, and tackle key themes such as:

  • How do we continue to widen participation?
  • What are the answers to the imbalance of supply and demand?
  • How do we support students in a more competitive environment?
  • How do we promote the full range of choices to students?
  • What is the future student experience?

The opinions expressed in individual essays are the authors’ own, and do not reflect the views of UCAS. The purpose of this campaign is to stimulate debate.

The data

The projection for up to one million applicants by 2030 is driven by:

  • An increasing 18-year-old population, with the ONS forecasting that there could be nearly 900,000 18-year-olds in the population in 2030– an increase in 180,000 from 2020. 
  • The number of internationally mobile students will continue to grow with the OECD showing in 2000 there were 1.6m internationally mobile students, rising to 5.6m in 2020, and some forecast this could be as high as 9m in 2030.
  • By 2030, UCAS projections show the most likely scenario is a 30% more higher education applicants relative to 2022, with the most pessimistic scenario seeing growth of 19.5% and the most optimistic showing 41%.

Graph showing actual and forecasted number of applications to 2030

About UCAS

UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, is an independent charity, and the UK's shared admissions service for higher education.

Our services support young people making post-18 choices, as well as mature learners, by providing information, advice, and guidance to inspire and facilitate educational progression to university, college or a degree apprenticeship.

We manage almost three million applications, from around 700,000 people each year, for full-time undergraduate courses at over 380 universities and colleges across the UK.

We also provide a wide range of research, consultancy and advisory services to schools, colleges, careers services, professional bodies, and employers, including apprenticeships.

We’re a successful and fast-growing organisation, which helps hundreds of thousands of people every year. We're committed to delivering a first-class service to all our customers — they're at the heart of everything we do.

Related news