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Five things we know ahead of results day 2023

  • 13 July 2023
  • By Clare Marchant
  • This blog was kindly authored for HEPI by Clare Marchant, Chief Executive of UCAS.
  • Register for the HEPI / UCAS webinar on 14 August here.

It would be easy to think that this year is a normal Confirmation and Clearing period. Exams are underway and arrangements are largely similar to what they were prior to the disruption of Covid-19. However, the majority of students are sitting formal exams for the first time, after their GCSE exams were cancelled due to the pandemic. Not only that but we also have a range of external factors influencing this complex cycle, including geopolitics, the economy and job market, and cost of living. This, against a significant growth in demand for higher education (HE) places in previous cycles, has meant that the January deadline showed a small decline in applicant numbers. Yet we are still seeing a strong commitment among young people to go to university or college, with new UCAS data showing the second highest number of UK 18-year-old applicants on record – 319,570 compared to the record high of 326,190 in 2022 but significantly higher than 275,520 in 2019.

Offer-making is strong despite increased competition

It is well understood that demand and capacity impacts on offer making. We saw offer rates decline over the course of the pandemic (2020-2022), driven by accelerated demand for places coupled with more cautious offer making as universities sought to rebalance their numbers. This year, we have seen an uplift in offer rates across all provider groups following that period of decline, with new UCAS figures showing 76.2% of UK 18-year-olds are holding an offer compared to 73.9% in 2022 – although this does remain lower than pre-pandemic offer rates, 79.3% in 2019.

After periods of significant expansion, the decline in offer rates during the pandemic was most noticeable at higher tariff institutions. Breaking this year’s figures down even further, we can see that higher tariff institutions are making more offers once again this year. We are now seeing a move towards previous offer-making dynamics, with the UK 18-year-old offer rate at higher tariff institutions at 65.6% – compared to 61.3% in 2022 and 73.3% in 2019. For medium tariff institutions, the offer rate is 81.8%, compared with 80.3% last year and 83.1% in 2019, while for lower tariffs the offer rate is 85.5% versus 84.5% in 2022 and 83.7% in 2019.

Applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in the UK (POLAR4 Quintile 1) are also receiving more offers this year, with the offer rate of 76.5% up from 74.6% in 2022 but down on 77.9% in 2019. At UCAS, we are continually working to improve the admissions service to serve applicants better and broaden participation for all students, regardless of background or pathway – with the introduction of seven new widening participation questions to UCAS’ application this year. These figures show progress is moving in the right direction but there is still more collective work that can be done to achieve equality of opportunity and avoid a reversal in trajectory, as have set out in our recommendations on the Journey to a Million.

Alongside offer rates, we know that student confidence is also high, with our recent sentiment survey revealing 97% of UK 17 and 18-year-old offer holders are confident they will get a place at university this year – an increase on 95% in 2022. In addition, 89% have received an offer from their preferred university and have accepted it – up from 83% in 2022.

This not only shows that applicants remain ambitious as they seek study at their top course and provider of choice, but also demonstrates the sustained appeal of undergraduate study.

Growth in new international markets emerging

The UK continues to be an attractive destination for study, with the number of international students applying to UK HE continuing to grow, primarily driven by interest from the Middle East and Africa, up 21% and 4% respectively on 2022. Yet it should be noted that although there is an increase in the number of international students this year, their overall offer rates are about the same compared to last year – about 54%. The ratio between domestic and international students being placed at UK institutions remains relatively constant, with about 13% of all accepted students from outside the UK – so there remains plenty of choice available to domestic students.

While in previous years, we’ve seen China leading the way in terms of international recruitment, applicants from China are slightly down this year – by 2% – which is most likely due to Covid-19 restrictions and disrupted learning. Indeed, early indications from upcoming UCAS research suggests that demand will recover, countering suggestions that we may be close to ‘peak China’.

With seven international countries accounting for half the UK’s undergraduate applicants, universities and colleges have increasingly sought to diversify their recruitment both across, and within nations, following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. This diversification remains increasingly important in the competitive global environment, as countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia set out their own ambitious policies to grow their market share. International students bring huge cultural, social and economic benefits to our country and it is vital that the UK not only remains globally attractive but meets the motivations for studying abroad – we know, for example, that the most important factor for students from Nigeria is gaining skills to support them in their career while students from India are driven by the ‘better quality’ of UK HE options.

Thousands of courses will be on offer

Last year, record numbers of UK 18-year-olds secured a place in Clearing (direct and main scheme) – 34,875, up from 26,305 in 2021 and 34,370 in 2019. Long gone are the days when Clearing was seen as a ‘last resort’. With new digital tools like Decline My Place and Clearing Plus, Clearing is now a core part of the cycle, and students are now using it to give themselves greater choice, more flexibility and extra security for their own futures – able to re-evaluate their options, regardless of whether they’ve received their predicted, better or lower grades.

The perception of Clearing being full of students that have not met the terms of their offer just isn’t true. Last year, 20,000 students declined their existing place and secured an alternative – showing the fluidity of student decision making, and the flexibility of the system supporting them. In contrast, 12,000 students were placed after being released into Clearing by their first choice.

Despite this, we have also seen a small gradual decline in the number of courses available in Clearing over the past few years – about 3,500 fewer courses in 2022 compared to 2019. We anticipate this could be the case again this summer as competition for places ramps up, in line with our projections on the Journey to a Million. Even so, we must collectively reassure applicants that there will still be plenty of choices available for those still actively seeking progression to HE after results day, with around 30,000 courses available in Clearing.

Each year, UCAS supports almost 1.5 million students in making informed choices about their future. Our advice to students is that they can get ahead by researching their options well in advance of results day this year, speaking directly to universities and colleges and using the range of personalised tools available on to explore all available pathways, including apprenticeships, before making their final decision.

Empowering applicants to make the right choice for them
Taking a closer look at Clearing, a key emphasis during last year’s cycle was the number of ‘Free to be placed in Clearing’ (FTBPIC) applicants – students who did not have a place after getting their grades on results day. Yet of the 21,000 applicants in that category, 12,000 (58%) went on to be placed at university or college – the proportion we would typically expect to see progressing each year. There are many reasons why the remaining applicants each year decide not to progress, from mature students who have most likely found work, to international applicants who may have decided to study in another country.

As already mentioned, those who submitted an application this year are much more likely to have chosen their offer as firm. Last year’s level may have been a result of more speculative applicants, which we don’t anticipate seeing again this year due to that strong intent to pursue HE study.
Students seeking paid work to support their studies
This cycle is taking place against the backdrop of a global cost-of-living crisis with energy, food and rent prices rising markedly over the past year. Yet UCAS polling on student attitudes shows a shift in student expectations – faced with cost pressures, they are much more likely to save and earn rather than not go to university, defer, or pursue a different route entirely. Responding to our survey, 57% of offer holders said they are considering getting a part-time job at university while 41% are considering getting a part-time job before starting their course.

This indicates that applicants are undeterred by cost-of-living factors and are set on finding a place at university this summer, which is supported by the number of insurance choices being made this year – 346,580 up from 343,750 in 2022 and 349,440 in 2019.

However, 46% of UK offer holders could not recall receiving any cost-of-living information from universities directly. UCAS is working closely with the sector to help universities and colleges give applicants timely, relevant support as the economic climate means more students look for constant reassurance on this during their decision-making journey.

For UCAS, there is nothing more important than students making the right choice for their next step, and as always, we will be on hand to support the thousands of applicants in their decision-making journey over the course of Confirmation and Clearing.

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