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What to look out for in university admissions this summer


The university admissions process is playing an increasingly prominent role in achieving government policy objectives in England through student choice and competition between institutions. Admissions also features prominently in the government’s focus on social mobility and improving life chances.

And of course, this year’s admissions cycle is also only the second since student number controls were removed in England, so it gives us the first opportunity to identify if there are any initial trends emerging.

We’ve already had three big UCAS data releases on 2016 admissions cycle. These have covered applicant numbers by domicile, age, sex, subject and country of provider at the January, March and June deadlines, along with application rates for 18-year-olds. This data tends to cover almost all (98%) 18-year-old applicants and even 86% of mature applicants, so it provides a good idea of early trends before A level results and confirmation and clearing in August.

The main story is of applications holding up. Applicant numbers are around the record level they hit last year, and despite a continuing and relatively steep drop in the number of 18 year olds in the population, we aren’t seeing a fall in the numbers of them applying for university. At the June deadline the number of 18-year-olds from the UK applying for university was the highest it’s ever been, with proportions of the same age group applying also at record levels.

Application rates for 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas have also generally had much better growth this year than last year, with a 5% increase in England compared to 3% in 2015. That’s good because it suggests that the slow growth in entry rates for that group in 2015 may have been a blip and that the 2016 entry rates will be more in line with what is required to meet the Prime Minister’s 2020 goal.

Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the same stability in the number of older people applying through UCAS.

This could contribute to a further drop in the numbers of mature students, an issue which has been concerning the sector for some time. It may be that older applicants are choosing to apply later, though it is difficult to be sure because of changes in the age groups used by UCAS during the 2015 cycle.

A similar (though slightly smaller) drop in mature applicants at the June deadline in the 2015 cycle became an increase in mature applicants and acceptances by the end of the cycle. But regardless of changes in application patterns, there still seem to be falls in the number of 20-year-olds applying through UCAS in the past couple of years which can’t be easily explained.

During summer, Universities UK will look at how institutions manage admissions, including offer making and clearing, and how the subject mix in applications is changing. We will also track clearing, including a visualisation of UCAS data on application routes, the numbers accepted and where, and the subjects they’ve been accepted for.

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