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Five UCAS insights ahead of a single UK Results Day in 2021

  • 24 July 2021
  • By Clare Marchant

Clare Marchant, the Chief Executive of UCAS, outlines five insights on what is on the minds of students and university decision makers before results land. Next week, HEPI will be hosting a free online an In Conversation session with Clare – book here.

Tuesday, 10th August 2021 marks the first time that there will be a single results day for the whole of the UK. Students will be receiving their AS and A-Level, vocational qualifications, including BTECs, and Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers grades at the same time. With all of this happening on one day, it will be different to usual with both increased scale and national focus.

However, it reflects the whole undergraduate applications cycle, which has been very different. Students, teachers and admissions teams have adapted continuously since March 2020, with changes affecting researching, applying, offer-making and results. Students’ desire to progress with their learning (and their lives) is unwavering and shows very little sign of being impeded by the COVID pandemic.

43.3% of UK 18 year-olds have applied through UCAS this year

Demand for undergraduate study is stronger than it has ever been. 43.3% of UK 18 year-olds have applied through UCAS this year (as of the 30th June deadline) compared to 40.5% in 2020 and fewer than 40% each year before that. By the end of the year, over 700,000 people of all ages and all domiciles will have applied.

Interest in apprenticeships is also up, as students explore all their available routes. UCAS’s apprenticeship service CareerFinder, which helps students find degree and higher apprenticeships, saw a record 1.35 million searches in the last 12 months, up 37% in 2020. These searches have resulted in 225,000 applications, an increase from 181,000 last year (+24%).

So, as we approach that key date in early August, what are the key things on the minds of students and university decision makers?

  1. Most students are confident and keen

Our latest polling of students suggests they are confident in getting the grades they need to secure their first choice of university. At this point of the year, most applicants will be holding an offer at their preferred (firm) choice of university or college and the place can only be confirmed when their results are known.

The clear majority of students (76%) still have their sights firmly set on their first choice of course and say they are fully committed and not exploring any other options, indicating that digital decisions at a point when students were largely unable to visit university campuses, are largely good decisions. Last year, when we asked students the same question, just 65% said they were fully committed. So, while there remains some degree of tentativeness (as we are nearly two months from term starting), the outlook is more positive than 12 months ago.

There is also undeniable excitement about the new term from students. More than two thirds (67%) said they are looking forward to learning more about their chosen subject and meeting new people the most. Living independently (47%) and the social life (41%) also scored highly for students, who are hoping to take advantage of fewer restrictions in society being in place than in the last academic year.

2. Universities and colleges will be as flexible as they can be when confirming places using teacher assessed grades

It is down to the discretion of individual admissions teams on whether to still accept a student who has missed their target grades. However, grades are not the sole determining factor of gaining a place or not. Portfolios, personal statements, references, interviews and other relevant experiences – and the background of the student – can all contribute to a university’s decision on accepting a ‘near-miss’ student.

Four-in-five students are confident that teacher assessed grades will be at least the same, if not higher, than if they had sat an exam.

With no exams this year, students’ grades will be based on teachers’ assessments, which will be quality-assured by the relevant awarding organisation. Four-in-five students are confident that teacher assessed grades will be at least the same, if not higher, than if they had sat an exam.

Of the 24% of students who said they were not fully committed, almost two-thirds said it was because they did not know how flexible their first choice would be if they did not achieve the grades needed in their offer. Though there are more applicants and offers overall this year, we still expect to see a degree of flexibility across the sector in confirming places once grades are known.

The number of offers made this year is broadly in line with the increase in applicants, demonstrating that flexibility which has been expected throughout the year. Courses that have stricter limits on places due to additional funding sources or the availability of placement options will undoubtedly have less room for manoeuvre than others and could potentially offer deferred places for 2022 instead. There is some uncertainly around what the grade profile will look like this year, but we are confident that in the majority of cases universities will be able to manage increased demand for places. However, if we see significant grade inflation, there may be some pressure points.

3. Aspirational students are also realistic

Students who are holding an offer at a higher tariff university are more likely to be thinking about what their next step will be if they do not get their firm place, compared to those looking at lower tariff institutions – this is clearly an astute move on their part, as the admissions process is naturally more competitive at higher tariff institutions.

The most common options being considered are looking for a new course in Clearing, deferring a start to reapply for 2022 entry and applying for a degree apprenticeship. Unsurprisingly, those students who are not confident about getting the required grades are more likely to already be exploring other options.

Almost half of accepted A-Level students go onto study courses holding actual grades below advertised entry requirements

UCAS research has shown that almost half of accepted A-Level students go on to study courses holding actual grades below advertised entry requirements. Having promoted this research and other factors associated with encouraging students to be aspirational with their applications before the application deadlines, such as UCAS’s historic entry grades tool for teachers and advisers, it is reassuring that more students have included aspirational choices in 2021, which in itself can be expected to bring a little nervousness overall prior to results day.

4. Clearing will be busy once again

Clearing is open now for anyone who’s just started to consider studying in the autumn. This later application route, applying for the first time directly into Clearing is proving more popular each year, as a record 25,000 students used it in 2020 (up 25% on 2019).

Clearing activity will increase dramatically once results are known as students who were holding offers but are not confirmed at their firm or insurance choice become free to look for a new course. Almost 83,000 students used Clearing last year – and assuming trends remain the same in future cycles – we think it is entirely possible that the total could reach six figures within the next couple of years.

There are around 30,000 courses showing they have places available on the UCAS website, including on some selective courses. Every year, there are well qualified students in Clearing – and we know from our surveys that they are already making their plan B and C – so we would expect admissions teams responsible for competitive courses to have an exceptionally busy week, including results day itself and beyond.

5. The UK is still a super attractive international study destination

Applications from outside the EU continue to rise, demonstrating the enduring appeal of UK higher education despite a global pandemic. The impact of the introduction of the graduate route for international students looking to stay in the UK after their course is also clearly substantial.

The number of applicants from India has risen by almost a third to reach 9,930

China once again leads the way, with 28,490 current applicants – making it a larger market than Wales, Northern Ireland and the rest of the EU (where uncertainly associated with Brexit and changes to students’ funding arrangements have contributed to applicants falling by 42% to 28,400). The number of applicants from India has risen by almost a third to reach 9,930, while the USA has seen the largest proportional increase of any country, with the number of applicants increasing by over 50% in a single year to 7,650.

Clearly there are more challenges in students physically coming to the UK than before the COVID pandemic. However, we know international, admissions and student support teams in institutions have been working round the clock, making sure that international students are given the best experience possible, especially as restrictions ease and we hopefully begin to emerge from the pandemic.

Looking to the next few weeks

Whatever situation individual students find themselves in over the next few weeks, UCAS’s team of experts will be ready to support them online, across social media channels and over the phone. For the wider sector and the public, we will publish the first set of acceptance figures on the morning of results day which will give us the first insight into how this year’s grades have transformed applications into confirmed places. These statistics will then be updated until the end of August, with further updates in September and final numbers in winter.

We already know that more offers have been made this year to mirror the rise in the number of applicants. Combining those increases with the flexibility consistently shown from universities and colleges throughout the last 18 months, we can expect a record number of confident, committed and excited students to start an undergraduate course in September.

Don’t forget to sign up for the free HEPI / UCAS webinar ‘In Conversation’ with Clare Marchant, Chief Executive of UCAS, which will take place on Friday, 30th July.

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