Skip to main content

Data published for Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) End of Cycle 2021 and Higher Education Statistic Agency (HESA): Higher Education Student Statistics 2020/21

Published: 28 January 2022

UCAS end of cycle data for 2021 covers application and acceptance figures for home, EU and international applicants. It also provides a breakdown of university and college admissions by student characteristics, including ethnicity and disadvantage, as well as information about the proportions of unconditional offers made last year.

The HESA data covers student enrolment in 2020/21, giving a breakdown by type of course, subject, level of study and domicile of entrants. It also gives details of the undergraduate degree classifications awarded in 2021.

The UCAS data is here

The HESA data is here.


  • Applications to higher education in 2021 were 5 per cent up on 2020, at 606,645, with acceptances increasing by 1 per cent (492,005)
  • As the 18-year-old population increased, 7 per cent more UK 18-year-olds were placed. Just over 80 per cent of students gained a place in their first choice university (up from 76 per cent)
  • 20.9 per cent of students eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) entered higher education (HE) – a record high. 2021 also saw a record proportion of students from the most disadvantaged areas enter university
  • The number of applicants achieving the top A level grades almost doubled compared to 2020 (19,595 from 12,735) and nearly quadrupled from pre-pandemic levels (5,655 in 2019). As a likely result, 103,010 UK young people were accepted at higher tariff providers, up 11 per cent from 92,650 in 2020
  • Internationally, a total of 142,925 people applied, a 5 per cent drop on 2020, with 70,005 accepted, representing a 1 per cent fall. This was fuelled by a 40 per cent drop in EU applications (31,670) and a 50 per cent drop in EU acceptances
  • Applications from outside the EU were up by 12 per cent  to 111,255, with 54,030 accepted (+2 per cent)
  • UCAS data shows that unconditional offer-making fell from a high of 15.7 per cent of all offers made in 2020 to 3.3 per cent in 2021, with ‘conditional unconditional offers “all but eliminated within this cycle”
  • HESA data shows that the total student population grew by 9 per cent to 2,751,865 in 2020/21. The number of first degree entrants rose by 8 per cent, while the number of first year postgraduate students rose by 16 per cent
  • Subjects allied to medicine (including nursing and related subjects) saw a 20 per cent growth in the number of first year undergraduate students
  • The number of first year students from India rose by 27 per cent but the number from China fell for the first time by 5 per cent
  • 36 per cent of first degrees were awarded first class honours compared to 35 per cent in 2019/20. The proportion of degrees awarded upper second class honours fell from 47 per cent to 46 per cent

Implications for governance:

Demand for UK higher education “remained strong” in 2021, according to UCAS, driven by the effects of demographics, the steady increase in young higher education participation rates and bumper teacher-assessed A-level grades. Behind the headline figures though there are trends which will affect different institutions in different ways, and governors will no doubt be keen to note how their own institution has been affected.

While the overall increase in recruitment is encouraging, the fall in EU numbers will be of concern. At some universities, it has reportedly amounted to a “complete collapse” in EU intakes. Governors will be aware of the post-Brexit impact and many universities are exploring how to tackle the shortfall. Non-EU international applications look healthier with a 12 per cent rise and acceptances up 2 per cent.

HESA data for 2020/21 also highlights a positive picture on international recruitment with the UK hitting its target of hosting 600,000 international students ten years early.  

The sector has seen increased success in attracting Indian students. However the first fall in numbers from China, a bulwark of international numbers for some institutions, is likely to be a worry - although it needs to be set in the context of the pandemic and of a 50 per cent increase in Chinese student recruitment over the last five years. If the figures signify the start of a more protracted fall off, universities continuing efforts to diversify their international recruitment markets may need to be accelerated.

The record numbers of FSM and low participation neighbourhood entrants revealed in the UCAS data will be welcomed and demonstrates the hard work being put in by widening participation teams, particularly during the pandemic. First year entrants to undergraduate courses such as HE certificates and diplomas and the number of entrants aged over 21 saw increases after a period of declining numbers. Ethnic minority student numbers at selective UK universities are also at record levels.

Institution-level HESA data shows that there is no clear pattern of increased intakes. Some Russell Group universities have expanded but a number of new institutions saw bigger increases in student numbers in 2020/21.

Also heartening was the increase shown in the HESA data of students enrolling on taught postgraduate courses. Numbers of postgraduate students have been increasing in recent years but 2020/21 data shows a more substantial increase, particularly in those studying part-time. Analysis by HESA suggests that some students will have decided to pursue postgraduate study at least in part to increase their chances of success in a potentially difficult labour market.

Governors may also be interested to note a growing interest in apprenticeships. UCAS’ Career Finder apprenticeship searches jumped by 50 per cent to 1.5 million. In a survey, half of UCAS pre-applicants said they were interested in learning about apprenticeships as well as traditional undergraduate degrees. There was also significant interest in nursing and courses allied to medicine - HESA figures show a 20 per cent rise – with numbers likely to have been boosted by the raised profile of the NHS during the pandemic.

HESA data shows that continuation rates did not differ substantially from those seen in other academic years, despite the challenges of the pandemic. However, there was a slight decrease in the number of students who gained their intended award, and a slight increase in the number of students who were listed as “dormant or writing up”.

Office for Student measures to halt the rise in unconditional offers has seen their number drop to just over 3 per cent of offers made, compared to 15 per cent in the previous year. The effectiveness of recent measures to tackle so-called “degree inflation” is less clear in a year when exams were overwhelmingly online and “no detriment” policies remained in place at many universities.

Keep up to date – sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our communications