This news alert looks at both the end of cycle data for last academic year, and associated analysis by UCAS, and the latest applicant figures up to the extended 29 January 2021 deadline. The provider-level data resources for the end of the 2020 application cycle are presented in an interactive dashboard allowing users to tailor the reporting to their own specifications. The resources can show figures on applications, acceptances and offers across individual institutions, subjects, university types and geographical areas. It allows comparisons between the normal admissions round of 2019 and the pandemic-affected cycle in 2020. UCAS also issued a news release showing the popularity of some subject choices over a longer period. Similarly, the 2021 applicant figures for January are presented via a dashboard and show comparison data to all previous 15 January deadlines with graphical illustrations of key trends.
The 2020 application cycle data resources can be found at:https://www.ucas.com/data-and-analysis/undergraduate-statistics-and-reports/ucas-undergraduate-end-cycle-data-resources-2020/2020-entry-provider-level-end-cycle-data-resources
The 2020 cycle news release can be found at: https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/students-turn-technology-university-choices
The 2021 January deadline data resources can be found at: https://www.ucas.com/data-and-analysis/undergraduate-statistics-and-reports/ucas-undergraduate-releases/applicant-releases-2021/2021-cycle-applicant-figures-january-deadline?hash=brm-l3o_APNzR38bJPg4F2VfBCXapfKACKkXGdogwFo
- The increasing popularity of STEM subjects has continued: acceptances to computer science courses rose by almost 50% in a decade to 30,090 in 2020; engineering courses are up 21% over the same period, while acceptances to newer artificial intelligence (AI) courses have seen a 400% rise to 355 in 2020
- Nursing, law, business and psychology subject areas have all seen increases in numbers, while acceptances to medicine courses are at the highest level on record, growing 37% since 2017. Higher and medium tariff universities experienced most of the increase in these subject areas
- Humanities subjects and languages have decreased in popularity over the last decade. Acceptances to modern language degree courses have decreased by 36% to 3,830 in 2020, mirroring a decrease in language A-level entrants over the same timeframe. English studies fell from 10,020 acceptances in 2011 to 6,980 in 2020. History and philosophical studies dropped from 15,060 in 2011 to 12,870, though this decline is confined to lower and medium tariff providers
- All 24 Russell Group members increased their acceptances, with almost 15,000 more applicants in total being given a place at these universities. Imperial College London, the London School of Economics and University College London all saw an increase of more than 30 per cent from 2019 to 2020. Durham and Sheffield also saw substantial increases. A number of newer universities also saw big increases in acceptances, notably Leeds Trinity University (a 76% rise), and Bucks New University (65%). A number of universities increased numbers outside of mainstream applications, suggesting a strong Clearing performance
- Other providers saw falls in acceptances in the 2020 cycle. Bedfordshire recruited nearly 43% fewer students than in 2019, Heriot-Watt 24% less, and Coventry saw a 23% drop, Glyndwr recruitment was down 22% and Surrey saw 20% fewer acceptances than last year. For some universities, the 2020 figures added to several years of declining UK recruitment through UCAS. Three large post-92 institutions – Solent University, Brighton and Middlesex Middlesex - have all seen their acceptances fall by at least a quarter since 2015
- Recruitment at larger alternative providers was mixed – BPP recruitment grew by 31%, the University of Law by 35%, but Regent’s University saw a 40% fall in numbers
- A fall in “conditional unconditional” offers (where a place is guaranteed, regardless of grades if the institution is made the first choice) has followed the government moratorium on the use of conditional offers in the 2020 cycle. Just 13 universities used such offers in 2020, a drop from about 35 institutions the year before. In only eight cases did they make up more than 10 per cent of all offers. However, three institutions – Winchester, De Montfort and Canterbury Christ Church - continued to use them for more than half of all the offers they made
- The 2021 January application data shows that overall, a total of 616,360 people had applied, an increase of 8.5% compared with January last year, and a new record for this point in the application cycle. An increase of 11% among 18-year-olds means 42.6% of the 18-year-old population have applied to higher education, the first year that more than two-fifths of young people have applied. The number of mature applicants (aged 21 and over) has risen by 24%
- A rise in the numbers of students applying to study nursing, medicine and dentistry and engineering, continues the upward trend in STEM applications seen in 2020 end of cycle data. Languages, history, philosophy and classics were in less demand, although applications to creative arts among 18-year-olds were up 10.7% on last year
- The number of applications from EU students has dropped by 40 per cent, although applications from outside of the EU were up by 17 per cent. Applicants from China and India have increased by 21% and 25% respectively. The USA has seen the largest proportional increase of any major nation as applicant numbers have risen 61% to 6,670
- More than a quarter of 18-year-old students from the most disadvantaged areas (26.4% from POLAR4 quintile 1) have applied, up from 24.5% at the same point in 2020. The application rate for 18-year-olds from the most advantaged areas was 59%
- Data by ethnic group shows increased numbers of applicants in all categories, with applications from black and mixed-race candidates both up 15%
Implications for governance
The UCAS end of cycle data shows how individual institutions and groups of universities were impacted by the 2020 pandemic-affected admissions round, as well as other factors which may have had consequences for recruitment such as Brexit.
Governors will be interested in the longer-term trends in subject choice, such as increased demand for STEM, the Covid boost for health subjects and the growing interest in AI-related courses, which seems to have been sustained in the 2021 January deadline figures. Such insights will inform areas such as curriculum and course development, marketing and admissions, and are particularly important given recent government changes to the teaching grant allocation criteria (covered in this News Alert).
Big increases or decreases in acceptances have implications across a host of governance areas, not least finance, staffing and estates and reputation.
Governors will also need to be aware of what competitors are doing to hold their own in student recruitment. Are there lessons to be learned from institutions that had particularly strong growth in 2020? A number of universities increased their 2020 student numbers outside of mainstream applications by a strong performance in Clearing. For some institutions, it may be worth looking at what they did to recruit significant numbers at that stage.
The 2020 data shows that universities have rowed back on the use of “conditional unconditional” offers following government action to limit them. Some of those instances recorded in 2020 will have been issued before the moratorium announcement in March. However, the advice against using unconditional offers generally has not deterred a number of institutions from employing them on a significant scale. Analysis of the data shows that the total number of unconditional offers continued to rise in 2020, demonstrating that they are still an important tool for some recruitment teams.
Moving to the 2021 January applications figures, the 40 per cent drop in EU applications, described as an “inevitable consequence” of Brexit, will be a concern for many institutions. In Scotland, where EU student places have been funded by the Scottish Government, universities are awaiting an announcement on whether it will redirect some of the £92 million EU fee funding towards scholarships.
The drop in EU applicants was spread proportionally across England, Scotland and Wales. The trend was bucked by Northern Ireland, where universities registered a 38 per cent increase in EU applicants to 2,280 applicants. The data also showed Irish applicants to UK universities grew by 26 per cent to reach 4,850.
The good news on non-EU international applications, which rose by 17 per cent, will be a boost to admission teams. Governors will be interested to note the growth in applicants not just from China, but other key markets including India and the US.
As well as growth in some STEM subjects, particularly nursing and medicine, applications to education courses are up nearly 17 per cent. There is also increased demand among 18-year-olds for “combined” subjects, perhaps reflecting an attempt to keep career options open in what is likely to be a difficult Covid-impacted, post-Brexit graduate jobs market.
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