New figures released from UCAS today indicate we could see up to 30% more higher education applicants over the remainder of the decade, intensifying competition for places and posing risks to disadvantaged students.
Posted Mon 27 March 2023 - 00:01

UCAS projects that there could be up to a million higher education applicants in a single year in 2030, up from more than three quarters of a million in 2022. 

In response to its projections, UCAS is launching a national debate – highlighting five key challenges and opportunities created by increased demand during this potential Journey to a Million. 

The Journey to a Million will affect all aspects of how people gain a place in higher education, from the point they consider their options, to the way they connect to them, to their experiences whilst studying and entering the labour market. 

UCAS, in partnership with Knight Frank and Unite Students, has invited 50 key thinkers from across the UK to give their view on tackling the challenges and seizing the opportunities. UCAS will share this broad and diverse set of essays publicly in the coming weeks culminating in a final report published in partnership in the summer.

The first release today includes new forecasting driven by UCAS data science capabilities looking at where future demand will come from, and how the growing 18-year-old demographic will drive future competition, as well contributions from education ministers and senior officials across the UK on what this means for the nations, as well the need to protect the needs of disadvantaged students. 

50 key thinkers have contributed to the debate, and over the next three months will 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?

Clare Marchant, Chief Executive of UCAS, said: ‘Today we have highlighted the challenges and opportunities presented by increasing demand this decade, with up to a million higher education applicants in a single year in 2030. Ultimately this is an economic challenge as much as an education one and will have profound impacts on the current and future shape of the UK.

'With the increasing demand largely driven by the growing 18-year-old demographic, we can see the challenge on the horizon as this group progress through school and college. If we do not collectively act today, we risk missing a significant economic opportunity, whilst also leaving a generation behind.

‘It’s vital that these students have access to a supply of high-quality opportunities – including undergraduate courses and apprenticeships – and that the interests of disadvantaged are not forgotten during this period of increasing competition.

‘This is a horizon impacting those students at the heart of the services UCAS provides and so we have invited 50 key thinkers to outline how we can address this increasing demand. It is vital we work together to unlock the supply of opportunities to students across all routes, ensuring that the growth in demand does not lead to a growth in wasted talent.

‘We seek, by igniting the discussion, to play our part in making the Journey to a Million a successful one.’

Robert Halfon, Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education said in his essay: ‘It is remarkable that we are expecting a million young people to be applying to UCAS by the end of the decade. When people think of UCAS, they think of universities. I want young people to understand all their options and choose the best path for them. That may be university, but it may equally be further education or an apprenticeship. As the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, I do not set any of these apart from one another – and neither does UCAS.’

Jeremy Miles, Welsh Minister for Education and Welsh Language said in his essay: ‘Widening participation is a key policy for the Welsh Government, where we have seen first year full-time students from our most deprived areas up year on year since introducing our reforms. It will be vital that as numbers grow, those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are not squeezed out as the competition for places may increase.’

Heather Cousins, Deputy Secretary, Skills and Education Group in the Department for the Economy said in her essay: ‘In the early 2000s, the then UK Government set out its ambition for 50% of young adults to progress to higher education (HE) in order to reap the manifold benefits of a university education. While this was certainly an ambitious target, I am delighted that Northern Ireland has risen to that challenge during the past 2 decades, with the most recent UCAS data indicating that 52.8% of Northern Ireland 18-year-olds had applied to university. The need for people coming out of education with high-quality and economically relevant qualifications and skills has never been greater.’

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. As UCAS kicks off this important debate, we are proud to be invited to join the conversation in partnership with Unite.’

Richard Smith, CEO, Unite Students said: ‘We are proud to play our part in supporting students to achieve their best. Our purpose is to provide a Home for Success for all students while they study at university and this important collection of essays will help shape the debate, in partnership with UCAS and Knight Frank, as the demand for higher education places rises to one million by 2030. As the UK’s largest provider of student accommodation, we are focused on widening participation for a more diverse student body as demand for places increases over the coming years.’

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%.

Today we are releasing essays from:

Clare Marchant, Chief Executive, UCAS on Why are we obsessed with the Journey to a Million.

Robert Halfon, Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education on What does the Journey to a Million mean for student progression and the choices they have in England?

Jeremy Miles, Welsh Minister for Education and Welsh Language on What does the Journey to a Million mean for student progression and the choices they have in Wales?

Heather Cousins, Deputy Secretary, Skills and Education Group in the Department for the Economy on What does the Journey to a Million mean for student progression and the choices they have in Northern Ireland?

Ben Jordan, Head of Policy, UCAS on What does the Journey to a Million mean for supporting disadvantaged students in their progression?

Rt. Hon Justine Greening, Former Secretary of State for Education and Chairman of the Purpose Coalition on What does the Journey to a Million mean for widening access and participation, levelling up, and how do we maintain the interest of disadvantaged students?

Alison Train, Assistant Director, Lothians Equal Access Programme for Schools (LEAPS) on What does the Journey to a Million mean for widening access in Scotland?

Susie Whigham, Interim CEO, The Brilliant Club on What are risks and opportunities for widening participation on the Journey to a Million?

Read the UCAS projections and all the above essays

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


Notes for editors

About The Journey to a Million: 5 Big Challenges & 50 Big Thinkers

UCAS will be publishing more of its big thinkers in the coming weeks at

The full report including the UCAS projections and contributions from all 50 thinkers will be available by summer 2023.

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

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.

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