The UK’s 38 most selective universities would each only need to admit an additional 70 students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in England every year to close the collective equality gap in their admissions by 2030.
Posted Wed 16 December 2020 - 00:01

Insight from UCAS’ 2020 End of Cycle report: What happened to the COVID cohort? shows continued, albeit slowing, annual progress in widening access and participation to full-time undergraduate courses. However, the current trajectory shows the gap will take 332 years to close, so strong actions need to be considered to accelerate progression in the coming years.

English school pupils from the most advantaged backgrounds (Multiple Equality Measurement [MEM] group 5) are now 12 times more likely to study at a higher tariff university, compared to those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (group 1) – the lowest gap on record and largest single year fall in this value since 2014.

The UK’s 18 year old population is set to rise; UCAS projects there will be an additional 90,000 applicants by 2025 and potentially increased competition for the most selective courses.

Without intervention, there is potential for widening access and participation progress for traditional three-year, full time undergraduate programmes to stall, and possibly reverse.

Other highlights from the first UCAS 2020 End of Cycle report show:

  • Record proportions of UK 18 year olds applied (41.5%) and were accepted (37%) into university or college, despite widespread concern that demand for higher education would fall due to the pandemic.
  • A narrowing of the UCAS Multiple Equality Measure (MEM) equality gap, with the most advantaged English school pupils (group five) 4.23 times more likely to enter higher education than the most disadvantaged (group one), compared to 4.40 times in 2019. The gap since 2010 has now narrowed by 26%.
  • Record numbers of acceptances from the lowest participation areas (using the POLAR measurement) and a record entry rate for those receiving free school meals (FSM).
  • An improving equality picture for higher tariff universities overall, and, though still stark, the MEM entry rate ratio for English 18 year old applicants to medicine courses narrowed, with advantaged now students 25 times more likely to enter these courses than their disadvantaged peers.
  • Significant growth in mature student acceptances, reflecting a demand for up and re-skilling and the inspirational work of the NHS encouraged applications to health and social care programmes, including nursing.
  • More students than ever (64,965 students, up 11.5% on 2019) declaring disabilities or special educational needs, including learning difficulties and mental health conditions, accepted.

View our interactive dashboard of sector-level end of cycle 2020 data resources 

Clare Marchant, UCAS’ Chief Executive, said: “The insight gleaned from analysing UCAS admissions data using our comprehensive Multiple Equality Measure shows the enduring determination of young people from all backgrounds to progress to higher education despite all the interruptions to daily life throughout the pandemic. The significant efforts of universities, colleges and schools to support all students in these trying times are also clear as gaps in equality shrink again this year.

“Unsurprisingly, mental health declarations continue to rise. Building confidence in students to trust that UCAS and universities and colleges will use this information responsibly is a key recommendation coming out of this report.

“Ensuring disadvantaged students, including those who have experienced significant educational disruption, are supported in accessing HE in 2021 will be critical.

“Looking further ahead, advances in widening access and participation cannot be taken for granted, and there is much work still to be done. Ensuring a sustainable increase in higher education and apprenticeship places to ensure availability for the most disadvantaged students will help manage impending pressures on equality.

“Building on the success of the UCAS Hub, our personalised digital space for young people embarking on their next steps, we are committed to exploring the benefits of a UK shared apprenticeships admissions service to enable students to consider and connect to all post-secondary education options in a single location.”

Overall, a total of 289,510 UK 18 year olds (up 3.0% on 2019) applied through UCAS in the 2020 cycle, and 257,895 (up 6.8%) were accepted.

Further insight into the 2020 cycle will be published at the end of January 2021, including analysis of students’ choices and motivations.


UCAS Press Office

01242 545 469



Notes for editors

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

The UCAS Multiple Equality Measure (MEM) combines the effects of many measures used in the analysis of equality in higher education (such as sex, ethnic group, POLAR quintile, school type and free school meals (FSM) status) into a single value, reducing the potential for blind spots in identifying disadvantage.


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