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Five questions on the minds of senior leaders after UCAS’s January deadline

  • 26 March 2021
  • By Sander Kristel

This blog was kindly contributed by Sander Kristel, Chief Operations Officer, UCAS. You can find Sander on Twitter @SKristel1.

The 2020 higher education entry cycle was marred with challenges but, despite these, the outcomes surprised many. We saw a record number of students placed, improvements in widening access and great flexibility shown by institutions. Ultimately, more students than ever before were placed at their first choice.

In 2021, we once again see encouraging levels of demand. The January deadline saw record growth that once again surprised many, this included a 12% increase in UK-domiciled applicants and a 17% increase in non-EU applicants. Even with the notable decline of EU students (down 40% to 26,010), we saw a 26% increase in students applying from the Republic of Ireland.  

As we start looking ahead to Confirmation and Clearing and the start of the autumn term, similar questions and challenges are starting to emerge. Armed with fresh insight from our surveys and applicant contacts, we consider some of the major questions being posed by senior leaders at higher education institutions for the remainder of the cycle.

  1. How different is the 2021 cohort to their 2020 predecessors?

The 2020 entry cycle was defined by uncertainty and challenge and the sentiment of students throughout reflected this. The 2021 cohort, despite the ongoing pandemic, are approaching their applications with a greater experience of lockdown and COVID life. In our survey of over 1,000 applicants carried out in early February, 91% said they are fairly or very confident in securing a place in higher education.

Applicants are also knowledgeable and accepting of what their experiences may be like. With hope of normality on the horizon, 98% of students still expect some social distancing measures to be in place in September. They have seemingly not been deterred by the images of last year’s first-year students self-isolating in halls of residence or the move to online learning and they are committed to progressing to the next step in their lives.

One similarity between the two cohorts is a thirst for trusted information to bring assurance. Nearly half say ‘knowing whether there would be lockdown measures’ would help them to make a decision if undecided and 45% say ‘more information from the universities I am considering’ would assist their choice.

26% of applicants say they feel ready for higher education

With this being the second COVID cohort, we have to acknowledge the additional disruption these students have faced in their studies. Many have spent more time out of the classroom than in it in the last 12 months and only 26% of applicants say they feel ready for higher education. It will be challenging for providers to ensure they succeed once they get there, particularly in the context of potential increased numbers and possible continued social distancing measures of some sort.

2. How sticky are digitally enabled decisions?

Our latest survey shows applicants are confident in their primarily digital research and that the decisions they are making are the right ones for them. Most (72%) already have a preferred university in mind even though only 23% have visited their chosen institution in person.

It is easy to assume that students will wait until ‘normality’ returns to make their decision to enable a more ‘normal’ decision-making process. However, only 7% of applicants say they will wait until the June deadline to make their choice. Digitally-enabled decision making is the ‘new normal’.

For those students that have not made their decisions yet, it would be easy to assume that they are waiting to be able to visit their chosen university before doing so. This is not always the case, with just over two-in-five saying visiting first was important. Many students are likely to wait to have a better understanding of their grades.

3. What will the summer look like?

Higher education admissions in most years are a well-oiled machine, which depends on stability in grades awarded. Universities broadly understand how many of their offers will result in students enrolling the following autumn.

There is much speculation regarding what grade outcomes will look like this year, with many speculating we will see grade inflation similar to or greater than last year. While increases in grade profiles will likely create additional pressure in some parts of the sector, we should acknowledge the additional flexibility already shown during COVID by universities and colleges.

This year we have seen an increase in 18-year old applicants and these applicants could have higher grades than previous years. Depending on volume, for the majority of the sector this does not pose an issue – 49% of 18-year old applicants are accepted to higher education with grades lower than their entry offer, with universities using their near-miss students to manage numbers. This is entirely normal and likely to occur this year.

There will, of course, be some areas where changes in outcomes create pressure. However, last year many of the challenges faced by selective courses was due to the late changes in standards and a second wave of students meeting their offer. This year, providers and others in the sector have greater lead-in time to plan their offer-making and confirmation strategies and, where needed, put in additional measures to assess candidates.

With increased numbers of applicants, potential grade inflation and the impact of appeals, the pressure is certainly going to be on. However, if last year’s resilience of the sector is anything to go by, with flexibility and collaboration shown throughout, it will rise again to these challenges.

For some, though, increases in grade profiles will create specific pressure, with the most selective institutions reducing their offer making slightly in response to avoid over recruitment. This doesn’t necessarily make it more difficult to get in as it avoids creating disappointment later on.

4. Is the increase in demand real?

From March, UCAS ordinarily observes an increase in mature students applying for higher education. Last year, this was particularly noticeable, with mature students seemingly inspired by the efforts of key workers. During periods of economic challenge, retraining is more popular.

At the January 2021 deadline, we saw a 21% increase in applicants aged 21 and over. Are these new applicants to the system, or people applying earlier than usual?

To answer this question, we surveyed students who have registered with UCAS and not yet completed their application. Of these 130,000 out of 350,000 said they were very likely to submit an application. These students are more likely to be mature, independent from a school or college, or international.

So we would expect more applicants to enter the system in March, as they do every year and for the overall increase in demand for higher education observed so far to continue. It is likely that, come results day, we’ll be talking about record numbers across the board. From a university recruitment point of view, there is still much to play for.

5. What does this mean for 2022 and beyond?

After the disruption of 2020 and 2021, will the 2022 cohort be defined by a ‘new normal’?

At any point, universities will be managing at least two, if not three, admissions cycles, therefore it is not too early to think ahead to the 2022 admissions cycle, which opens in May 2021.

The 2022 and 2023 cohorts will not have sat GCSE exams and have had severe disruption to the end of their Level 2 study and start of their Level 3 study. What will these students be like and how do we support them? It is likely that adaptations will be made for this cohort too, with Ofqual commenting that the previously planned arrangements for 2021 will potentially roll over. It is right that we plan early for this cohort to ensure a high level of readiness and support.

We believe that COVID will be at least a five-year consideration for admissions. As school life starts to return to normal, we will need to be understanding of the ongoing impact. The volume of information and advice that we collectively provide will need to reflect this and more offers may need to be tailored to the individual circumstances of the applicant to provide the maximum support possible.

There are many challenges for UCAS, but COVID has increased our agility and encouraged the development of a more flexible and digitally-enabled landscape that are likely to be welcomed by current and future applicants.


  1. Jonny Moore says:

    Thanks for this really interesting insight.

    I note that your assertion that ‘98% of students still expect some social distancing measures to be in place in September’ links to a HEPI blog from October 2020, based upon existing students’ expectations in June last year – is this an incorrect link? It would be terrifically helpful to know if there is any more up-to-date information on students’ expectations. Otherwise, this is massively misleading and should really be corrected.

    Many thanks

  2. HEPI says:

    Thanks Jonny – We enquired with UCAS and the 98% figure is from the survey in March 2021. The figure can be found here too:

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