This blog was written by Clare Marchant, Chief Executive of UCAS.
This academic year is the first in three that will see students sitting examinations. In some ways it’s the first normal undergraduate admissions cycle in recent memory, and much has changed. As we enter this year’s Confirmation and Clearing season from 5 July, the cumulative effect of several important factors, many of which were accelerated by the pandemic, are coming together to set trends for years to come.
1. Students’ confidence is high, with more accepted offers
Students have largely been applying as expected (with 43.4 per cent of the UK 18-year-old population applying by the January deadline, continuing the upward trend) and have high levels of confidence – something we have consistently seen throughout the pandemic. Results from our sentiment surveys in May show that 95 per cent say they’re confident of getting a place. That compares to 91 per cent of last year’s cohort when polled at the equivalent point.
Ninety-one per cent of this year’s applicants are happy with the offers they’ve got. In fact, 281,500 UK 18-year-olds are holding a firm offer, up 7,000 on last year and the highest on record – meaning more applicants are in a prime position to secure a preferred course than ever before.
Digging into this further, we see more evidence of student confidence. One hundred and seventeen thousand UK 18-year-olds are holding offers at higher tariff providers – the second-highest figure on record, behind 2021’s record 121,000, but markedly ahead of the 106,000 in 2019 and 111,000 in 2020, as applicants seize the most ambitious opportunities.
In using Clearing (and the digital tools available to them such as ‘decline my place’ and Clearing Plus), applicants are more aware than in previous years of the options that could be available to them in the summer. Around half (49 per cent) are confident they’ll secure a place at their firm or insurance choice, and therefore don’t plan to use Clearing. Just over a fifth (21 per cent) say they’re confident but could still use Clearing to shop around (and therefore could be seen as the most likely group to decline a confirmed place).
2. It is a competitive year though, and teachers know it
As widely expected, there are more applications in the system this year, driven by several significant factors. 2022 is the second year in an upward trend in the number of 18-year-olds in the UK’s population that’s projected to continue throughout this decade (increasing two-three per cent almost every year). The pandemic also accelerated demand, with a higher percentage of students continuing with their schooling and wanting to progress to university, and higher application rates from mature applicants.
There is also continued growth in demand from international students, especially those from outside the EU. However, although the number of people deferring last year (to start their courses this coming September) did increase, it isn’t substantial enough to affect the vast majority of courses this year.
The net effect of those elements means 2022 sees 667,000 applicants making almost 3 million applications – both records for this point in the cycle, and likely to be exceeded each year for the foreseeable future. One million applicants by 2026 remains a very real prospect.
Whilst some courses and providers are competitive every year, it will undoubtedly be more competitive for some courses and providers in 2022. When we asked teachers how they feel, half (49 per cent) are less confident about their students getting into their first choices this year compared to previous years (just 10 per cent are more confident this year). Around two in five are also expecting more of their students to need to use Clearing this year for a range of reasons, including not meeting the terms of their offer, or reassessing choices; however, the latest offer-making and acceptance data suggests that may not play out.
3. Universities have responded to continued higher demand by adapting their offer-making
Universities and colleges have responded to the increase in applications by exercising more restraint in their offer-making. They have also had more context to hand than in previous years when making offers, following early announcements in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales about this year’s grade profiles. And some universities are choosing to stabilise their student numbers following growth over the last two years.
This means the overall offer rate is 66.4 per cent, compared to 72.0 per cent in 2019, and this is also an indication of future cycles as universities and colleges adapt to having more applicants.
This reduced offer rate means fewer students that applied to higher tariff universities are holding four or more offers at high tariff universities compared to last year. However, as noted above, we are seeing the second-highest number of 18-year-old students holding firm choices at these institutions, so it clear that students remain committed to progression.
Some pockets of the sector are seeing a more pronounced tightening of offer-making – notably medicine and dentistry courses, where 15.6 per cent of applications have received an offer, down from 20.4 per cent in 2021, and for higher tariff providers more widely, where there’s currently a 55.1 per cent offer rate, down from 60.5 per cent last year. Courses that have always been competitive are more so this year.
It is also worth considering that offers may have been made in a much more precise way (in some cases more admissions teams will be supplementing UCAS information with additional assessments such as interviews and admissions tests) than in previous years, resulting in fewer offers. If this is the case, then offers have been made with high confidence that applicants will succeed on the course. As things currently stand, in the summer we foresee more applicants being confirmed at their firm choice provider than in a typical year.
4. Widening participation remains a priority
Although offer rates have declined in response to more applications, it is great to see that applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have been least impacted by the reduced offer rates.
We’ve already seen record numbers of applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (POLAR Q1) this year. Offer rates for applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (Q1 and Q2) have fallen the least – from 78.8 per cent last year to 75.1 per cent. However, the stark gap between the most and least advantaged persists, with an 18-year-old living in an advantaged area being 2.86 times as likely to hold a firm choice as their counterpart in a disadvantaged area.
We will continue to monitor and analyse both sentiment and data as the cycle continues. Our end of cycle reporting on offers will take into account factors such as more Q5 applicants applying for very selective courses, including medicine.
5. Expect students to take full advantage of the choices on offer
Come results days, we expect around 80 per cent of firm offer holders to secure their place at their firm choice. Will there be some people disappointed? Unfortunately, yes. But this isn’t new and the competition for the most sought-after courses is very much here to stay. Teachers, parents, UCAS and the education sector more broadly will need to be on hand to support students with whatever their next steps are – that’s always been the case, though, and needs to step up and evolve every year.
Although it is reflected in our support and advice every year for the 1.4 million students we engage with, now, perhaps more than ever before, students can place themselves in the strongest possible position by thinking ahead and putting together a Plan B or even a Plan C. Clearing will undoubtedly offer an abundance of choice with more than 30,000 courses likely to be available, and thinking about an apprenticeship or vocational route should be part of this overall planning if it isn’t already. This cohort of students has shown incredible resilience in the face of adversity for more than two years. We are confident that with the right support they will continue to rise above any obstacles in their way and progress onto their next step.
Yesterday’s blog on the state of admissions in 2022 by Nick Hillman is here.
Offers, offer rate, and firm choice figures relate to the cohort that applied on or before the January deadline, who would have progressed their applications to the point of making a firm choice decision.
Offer rate is defined as the proportion of applications that receive an offer.