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Subject and skills insight from the 2021 UCAS End of Cycle data

  • 16 December 2021
  • By Clare Marchant

This blog was contributed by Clare Marchant, UCAS Chief Executive.

The 2021 UCAS End of Cycle data provides a strong indication of where the interests of the upcoming graduate and apprentice workforce lie. The proportion of all young people across the UK getting an undergraduate place is at record levels (38.3%, representing 275,235 – with 81% getting their first choice), and interest in apprenticeships has never been higher, with now over 2 million searches annually on UCAS’ Career Finder.

Consistency in subject patterns, appetite for apprenticeships rockets

The acceptance figures for full-time undergraduate courses in many subject areas continue their existing trends this year. Broadly, STEM subjects are on the increase, with engineering up 9% for UK students aged 18 (to reach 16,740), alongside computer sciences up 6% (to 13,405) and subjects allied to medicine up 11% (to 24,540). Additionally, the number of young women accepted onto engineering and computer science courses this year has also risen at a greater rate than for men, while subjects allied to medicine have seen steeper rises for men than women.

What’s new though, is the significant change in demand for apprenticeship pathways. 55% of potential engineering students (representing 83,000 people), 53% of those considering computer science (59,000) and 34% of future medical applicants (70,000) within UCAS’ pre-applicant database say they want to know more about the apprenticeship routes available. They need more support to get the right information though – more than one in five students said it was difficult to get information on apprenticeships. A third said that they don’t get any apprenticeships information through their school or college.

While the upward trends in subject patterns aren’t deviating, the overwhelming message is that the way in which students want to study, and therefore where future provision needs to be expanded, is shifting. The UK’s 18 year old population will also grow significantly over the next decade, especially between now and 2026, so serious consideration to the post-secondary education and training options available for them needs to be given now in order to ensure that we can meet the needs and desires of these students. This is particularly the case with apprenticeships – we already know that demand outstrips supply, and more will need to be done to allow students to benefit from this provision.

The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which is making its way through the Commons, has the potential to transform the skills landscape in England. It puts employers at the centre of the system, working with further and higher education providers to shape local delivery through Local Skills Improvement Plans. Alongside this, increasingly there will be a focus on boosting higher technical skills – the first T level students graduate in 2021, and the first-wave Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs) at Level 4 and 5 will be delivered from September 2022.

A potentially more complex landscape for students to navigate, but we’ll be supporting them at each step through the UCAS Hub and our personalised information, advice and guidance, to get them where they want to go. With 9 in 10 students telling us it would be useful to have a centralised platform that offers help and advice for finding and applying for apprenticeships, it is absolutely key for us to give parity to the routes available. We need to present them equitably and fairly so students can make an informed decision on what’s right for them- be that an undergraduate degree, an apprenticeship or an HTQ. At UCAS, this is exactly what we are seeking to do.

Medicine remains the definition of competition

Medicine and nursing undergraduate courses could almost be considered the original apprenticeship. Their hybrid model of classroom and workplace learning mirrors the modern apprenticeship offering. Using well-established models such as this could help the prestige of apprenticeships, with 76% of students polled last year associating the word ‘prestigious’ with university degrees, compared to just 4% for apprenticeships (14% rate them equally).

Within the 2021 end of cycle data, it’s abundantly clear that Medicine retains its reputation for being a competitive subject for full-time undergraduate courses, with high levels of interest balanced against a set number of places. Grades were awarded based on teachers’ judgements this summer and were higher than previous years, which resulted in more applicants achieving the required grades for a place. Though more medical places were made available during Confirmation and Clearing, universities and colleges made fewer offers during the cycle – around 1.7 offers were made for each place, rather than closer to 2 in recent years. An increase in applicants, a lower offer rate and set number of places means that medicine continues to be the definition of a competitive course for applicants.

Not all subjects are in an encouraging position with interest from applicants. Modern Foreign Languages has been on a downward trend of undergraduate applications and acceptances for many years, and this carries on in 2021. With 2021’s GCSE entry data also reflecting a decrease, the demand at undergraduate level is not likely to change soon. Performing arts and creative subjects are also on similar trajectories. Arresting their decline won’t be easy. The increase in the population could help raw numbers (there were fewer than 2,500 UK 18 year old acceptances in 2021), but early engagement will be critical, as it is with all subjects.

Fluctuation in mature applicants

The Skills Bill also provides the legislative backing for the Lifelong loan entitlement (LLE). While the details are still being refined in Whitehall, the government has previously said the LLE will enable individuals to access four years’ worth of student loan funding across further and higher education providers throughout their lifetime. Courses are likely to be increasingly flexible and modular to meet the needs to mature students, with students dipping in and out of education and training as needed throughout their lives.

There was a significant rise in mature applicants in 2020, the biggest single year increase in numbers of students aged 21 and over for more than a decade as more sought solace in higher education – and were particularly inspired to study nursing. This was ahead of a predicted downturn in the economy at the start of the pandemic, which hasn’t panned out to the expected levels that some thought possible. By contrast, there are fewer acceptances of mature students in 2021, though this is mainly in the 21-24 group where the population is shrinking and increasing numbers of this group will have already been to university directly after school or college based on previous years’ data on 18 year olds.

Though acceptances for students aged 30 and over have marginally increased, the proportion of the total accepted applicant pool is getting younger. With demand for higher education increasing from 18 year olds, coupled with an increase in their population (while acceptances from most older age groups either remain static or fall), the average age of students in many lecture theatres and seminar rooms will be getting younger very soon.

Another dimension to consider is the first cohort of students with T-levels, who are due to graduate in 2022. These students holding new, technical qualifications will progress into the next stage of their journey, whether this be employment, university, college or an apprenticeship. It’s possible that some T-level students will have had more contact with the workplace in their studies (due to placements) and therefore expect more involvement from employers within their post-secondary studies. Some universities already have over 40% of their intake holding at least one BTEC qualification and there are more than 25 universities and colleges accepting over 1,000 of these students each year. The introduction of T levels will give all universities and colleges another opportunity to review their course portfolios and entry requirements, making sure they match both students’ mindsets and qualification offerings.

Ask anyone over the last 18 months and they’ll say the future is difficult to predict with complete accuracy. However, there are clear signals of students’ long term intentions of what they want to study and especially how they want to study. As we emerge from the pandemic, students are clearly sending all of us a message about the diversity of options they want to explore and how information and advice should be presented in a clear and transparent way. That way, they’ll be in prime position to make the right choice for them, truly discovering their future.

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