14th July 2017

University applications: What does the latest UCAS data tell us?

EPI’s Ieuan Bennett dissects the latest statistical release from the universities admissions body.

In our analysis of emerging university application data for 2017/18, we previously identified four trends that were of concern for the higher education sector and the economy: a dramatic decrease in the number of applications to nursing degrees following the changes to funding for students in nursing courses; a drop in the number of EU applicants as a result of  the UK’s decision to exit the EU; a fall in the applications from mature students; and a significant decline in the number of black applicants.[1]

The new statistical release published by UCAS this week, concerning total applications to UK universities up to the main scheme deadline of 30th June 2017, confirms those trends.

Applications from EU students are down by 5 per cent compared to 2016/17. This compares to a slightly smaller decline of 4 per cent for applicants from the UK, and one of 1 per cent for Scottish students. Despite the fall in applications, the proportion of 18 year olds in England applying to university has increased by 0.7 percentage points from 2016 to 37.9 per cent. Scotland has also seen an increase in the proportion of 18 year olds applying to university, reaching 33 per cent. However, both Northern Ireland and Wales have seen slight declines of about half a percentage point, to 47.7 and 32.5 per cent respectively.

A significant decrease in the number of EU students applying to university in the UK will be of particular concern for the sector’s finances. English universities may see up to 2,250 fewer students from the EU starting in September which would equate to a loss of over £20.8 million in tuition fee income a year with tuition fees at £9,250. Moreover, estimates by Universities UK suggest that EU students and their visitors contributed over £2.7 billion to gross output in the UK in 2014-15 including fees and other expenditure, suggesting that the economy, as well as universities will suffer from a decline in EU students.[2] The increase in applications from non-EU countries of 2 per cent may not be enough for universities to counteract the loss in revenue despite the higher fees charged to international students.

The biggest losers will be lower and medium tariff universities, which have seen a decline of 10 and 6 per cent respectively in applicants from the EU. This compares to a smaller than average 4 per cent decline for higher tariff institutions. In addition to fees income, universities remain concerned by the uncertainty over research funding once the UK leaves the EU – the impacts of which are unclear.

After announcing the replacement of NHS bursaries with student loans for nursing degrees, applications to these had been expected to fall. The total fall of 19 per cent masks a stark difference between the nations of the UK. In England, where the new funding arrangements will apply for all students regardless of domicile, applications to nursing degrees are down 23 per cent, whilst the decline in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland is 10, 6 and 2 per cent respectively and 19 per cent nationally. It looks unlikely that the decrease of 12,630 nursing applicants in England will be compensated by the expected 2,000 new nursing degree apprenticeships places.[3] Under the new apprenticeship rules, public sector bodies with more than 250 workers will be required to employ the equivalent of 2.3 per cent of their workforce as apprentices, but it is still unclear how this will be delivered by the NHS and for nursing training in particular.[4]

Trends vary significantly by ethnic group, with black students seeing the largest decline of 8 per cent. However, this decrease is driven primarily by the disproportionate number of black applicants who will be mature students, as nearly 50 per cent of black applicants are aged 20 years or older, compared to only 27 per cent for all other ethnic groups. This highlights that the funding policy for part-time learners, who are not entitled to maintenance loans, unlike their full time counterparts, affects some groups of applicants more than others.[5] The latest data available shows that universities invested £883.5 million in widening participation activities during the year 2015/16. While this investment is to be welcomed, there are clear gaps that need to be addressed to improve access for all young people – as well as mature students.[6]

In its Building Our Industrial Strategy green paper, the previous government warned of an alarming shortage of workers in sectors that rely on science, technology, engineering and maths skills, reporting that this may be affecting half of all British businesses.[7] The decline of 11 per cent in applications to technological courses and of 2 per cent in engineering courses will be received with concern by the government and business. As our report co-authored with Alison Wolf, Remaking Tertiary Education, advised, the government should seriously assess whether its approach to the expansion of higher education is truly meeting the labour market demands that will become more pressing after the UK leaves the EU.[8]

Department of Health, 2016, ‘Reforming healthcare education funding: creating a sustainable future workforce’, available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/539774/health-education-funding-response.pdf.

[2] Universities UK, 2017, ‘The Economic Impact of International Students’, p. 4.

[3] Department of Health, 2016, ‘New nursing degree apprenticeship’, available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-nursing-degree-apprenticeship.

[4] Department of Education, 2017, ‘Meeting the Public Sector Apprenticeship Target Statutory guidance for bodies in scope of the Public Sector Apprenticeship Target’, available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/606955/Public_Sector_Statutory_Guidance.pdf.

[5] HM Government, 2017, ‘Student finance’, available from: https://www.gov.uk/student-finance/parttime-students.

[6] Office for Fair Access, 2017, ‘Outcomes of access agreement monitoring for 2015-16’, available from: https://www.offa.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/OFFA-Monitoring-Outcomes-Report-2015-16-Final.pdf.

[7] HM Government, 2017, ‘Building our Industrial Strategy’, available from: https://beisgovuk.citizenspace.com/strategy/industrial-strategy/supporting_documents/buildingourindustrialstrategygreenpaper.pdf.

[8] Wolf, A., 2016, ‘Remaking Tertiary Education: can we create a system that is fair and fit for purpose?’, https://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/remaking-tertiary-education-web.pdf.