Clare Marchant assesses the ‘new normal’ in applications to higher education
The 2022 admissions cycle feels almost like a return to normal following two years of disruption, with students having sat exams across the UK once again.
However, this cycle is undoubtedly more competitive than those of recent years—and in future cycles, that competitiveness is set to increase.
There are three key reasons for this. First, grade outcomes are likely to be higher than in 2019 (although lower than in 2021). Second, we have a record number of 18-year-olds from the UK, plus international applicants applying via Ucas. Third, the rate of demand for higher education from 18-year-olds in the UK is increasing.
We have just analysed our data from our deadline on 30 June—the last date on which applicants could apply to up to five courses at the same time. The overall application rate for UK 18-year-olds, at 44.1 per cent, represents a record high and is likely to lead to record numbers of students starting higher education this autumn.
We had more than 683,650 applicants (up 1,600 on 2021), who made 3,049,000 applications (up 93,000) via Ucas. Nearly 135,000 international students have applied, an increase of 3 per cent since last year. Applications from China increased by 10 per cent to 31,400, and applications from India grew by 20 per cent. Applications from Nigeria increased by 58 per cent.
All of this is evidence of the UK as a world-class place to study—and we believe that many of these records will be broken in the coming years. We are seeing the start of an increase in 18-year-olds in the UK population that will last until 2030. Not only that, but a greater proportion of them than ever before aspire to transition straight into universities and colleges.
Ucas has been predicting since early 2021 that there could be up to a million applicants by 2026. This brings with it a more competitive environment for years to come, especially at the most selective institutions and courses.
In the coming weeks, Ucas will support more than 700,000 people as they start the next chapter in their educational journeys. We’ll distribute 2.5 million verified exam results across more than 350 universities and colleges. Come results days, we expect around 80 per cent of firm offer holders to secure their place at their firm choice.
This is the first year of the flagship T-level technical qualifications, covering construction, digital skills and education and childcare, with more subjects available for study next year, including legal services, agriculture, catering and craft and design. Of the 1,300 T-level students in England, approximately 500 have applied to universities—of all types—with most receiving offers.
All applicants can have confidence that getting into higher education is a fair process, with admissions teams across the UK considering a broad range of information about a student in addition to their grades. However, we have seen that some of the most popular universities are being more cautious with their offer-making—especially for courses such as medicine and dentistry, where places are capped—to avoid oversubscription.
This is not a bad thing as oversubscription is not in students’ best interests and higher education has always been a competitive process, but there is a need to ensure that the information and advice provided to students is mindful of this.
Nevertheless, if students meet the grades of any offer, they will secure their place. And even those who narrowly miss their offer grades may still be accepted because universities continue to recognise the importance of a range of factors, such as background, references, additional tests, interviews and personal statements, as well as results, which is why we encourage applicants to plan for those conversations now and to research a plan B so that they can act fast if their results prove disappointing. We already have almost 30,000 courses in clearing.
This remains a good year to enter higher education and, while there can be many good reasons for deferring, waiting for a less competitive year to materialise in the near future is not one of them.
Ucas has a long history of empowering the 4,500 UK teachers and advisers it works with to help their students navigate all this. Anticipating the impact of greater demand for higher education, we host monthly webinars with teachers and advisers specifically to explore the changes. Our digital services and face-to-face conferences and events are used by hundreds of thousands of teachers, advisers, students and their families and carers every year, and our social media channels grew in active engagement by 300 per cent throughout the pandemic.
We are also seeing a potentially significant and positive ‘disruptor’ in higher education with the rise in degree apprenticeship demand. Ucas’s Career Finder, which helps students find jobs, degree apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships, saw a record 2.15 million unique searches in the past 12 months, up 4.13 per cent from 30 June 2021. These searches have resulted in 243,138 apply clicks, an increase of 6.58 per cent from 228,124 last year.
We know that one in three students don’t receive information about apprenticeships, but since December 2021 we’ve had 70 employers, including world-leading companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ford, BT, DHL and Ocado, targeting students with the opportunity to study in this way. And this number is growing by 20 per cent year on year. We see this as an indication of an emerging trend.
A ‘new normal’ is undoubtedly underway in higher education admissions, but we are confident that we and our sector will continue to adapt to the needs of people seeking to learn.
Clare Marchant is chief executive of Ucas.