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UCAS applicant figures: factors behind the decline

Eleanor Jubb

Eleanor Jubb

Policy Analyst
Universities UK

​Today UCAS​ has released the latest figures for undergraduate applications made by the​ 15 January deadline. This is the deadline which has historically been used by young applicants, particularly those still at school or college, with 97% of UK applicants aged 18 or under historically applying by this point. This year, for the first time since 2012, total applicant numbers have fallen and applicants from all domiciles – the UK, EU and elsewhere in the world – are down on last year.

Ucas Domicile.JPG 

Perhaps the first thing to note is that the fall isn't a disaster. While the figures are down on 2016, applicant numbers by this point in 2016 were at a record high. Applicants from the EU in particular are only very slightly below 2015, which at that time was the highest they'd ever been. Given that since then the UK has voted to leave the EU, it is perhaps not surprising that their numbers have fallen despite government guarantees that tuition fees and loans will remain in place for EU students entering UK universities in 2019. And even with the fall, the number of applicants from the EU is already above the number of applicants from the EU who were accepted in the 2016 cycle.

UK applicant numbers are also down, and there are a lot of potential reasons behind this fall. The first is the fall in the number of 18 and 19 year olds across the UK since 2010; the number of 18 year olds in the UK this year is 3.3% lower than it was in 2015, according to ONS figures. Since 18 year olds make up nearly 50% of all UK applicants to universities, that's likely to have had an impact on applicant numbers. At the same time, more people in this age group have been taking vocational qualifications rather than A-levels, and these have got lower rates of progression into higher education. Despite this, we know that university remains popular with young people – the proportion of 18 year olds from England who applied through UCAS is higher than it's ever been, at 37% – but given a smaller group, it was inevitable that applicant numbers would be lower.

The drop in UK applicants is particularly notable amongst older applicants, and again there are a variety of reasons behind this, including the increasing proportions of people entering higher education when they're younger. One important factor in the drop in older applicants is the changes made to the way that degrees in nursing, midwifery and some other allied health professions are funded. Whereas previously students on these courses were funded by NHS grants, this year's intake will be taking out tuition fee and maintenance loans, in the same way as students on other undergraduate courses do. We believe that in the long run the change will be better for students, universities and the health workforce, but naturally this type of change will have made some applicants think again and there's been a 15.4% drop in applicants from across the UK applying to these subject areas.

Although the drop in these subjects is a cause for concern, the number of applicants in these courses has long outstripped supply. Last year the number of applicants from the UK for courses in this area outstripped supply by 7:1. Indeed, we are already hearing from some universities that although overall numbers are reduced, the quality of applicants may have increased. Eventually, we expect that the number of places available will increase as a result of the funding change, allowing more applicants to take up a place on the course they want to do. The Council of Deans of Health have put out some comprehensive and useful  information to help applicants make their decision, and we recommend that anyone considering a career in nursing, midwifery or the allied health professions, take a look.

The overall picture from these figures is a shift away from the general trend of growth in the past four years. As outlined above, some of the fall is the result of changes in the policy environment which we will be monitoring closely. Overall, though, the picture for undergraduate recruitment, particularly among young applicants, remains strong. We'll continue to monitor admissions figures from UCAS and will be providing more analysis later in the year.​

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Robert Eagleton
Robert Eagleton says:
6 February 2017 at 10:27

It is interesting to note that you have not mentioned the rise in tuition fees (from £9,000 per year to £9,250 per year) as a possible cause for a decline in applications. While the increase only represents a relatively small rise, and while demand for higher education courses is fairly inelastic, do you think that it has had contributed to the decline in applications?  

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