Latest figures cap decade-long rise in proportion of school-leavers opting for higher education
The number of British 18-year-olds aiming to go to university directly from school continues to increase at a record pace, according to figures that show a surge in applications this year.
The number of school-leavers applying for undergraduate courses starting in September increased by another 5% at the initial January deadline, faster than the age group’s demographic growth and after two successive years of steep rises in applications.
According to the Ucas university admissions service, 320,000 sixth formers have applied for university places so far, compared with 306,000 in 2021 and almost 50,000 more than at the same stage in 2019.
The latest figures cap a decade-long increase in the proportion of school-leavers opting for higher education. In England alone, 44% of all 18-year-olds applied in January, the highest on record. Ten years previously, in 2013, just 33% did so.
There were also record rates of applications among students in Wales and Northern Ireland, while those in Scotland were second only to the rate recorded last year.
The number of applicants from disadvantaged areas has also continued to rise, with 28% of 18-year-olds from areas with the lowest educational attainment applying, compared with just under 18% in 2013.
Clare Marchant, Ucas chief executive, said universities had made greater use of online recruitment events such as virtual open days, as well as advertising courses on social media, during the Covid pandemic.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents most secondary schools, said the rise in applications from disadvantaged areas was a testament to the hard work of teachers during the pandemic.
“However, it needs to be remembered that far fewer disadvantaged young people enter higher education than their more advantaged peers, and that this gap is particularly stark at the most selective universities,” Barton said.
Applications by international students through Ucas remained flat, thanks to a continued fall in the number of students from the EU applying. Since the UK’s formal exit, students from the EU face paying higher fees, and their numbers have slumped from nearly 17,000 applicants in 2019 to 10,000 this year.
However, stronger growth among non-EU applicants has led to nearly 43,000 applications. 12% more students from China applied for courses, making a total of 14,500, and another 3,000 from Hong Kong.
Last year also saw a sharp increase in the number of mature students aged over 21 applying for first degree courses. But as fears around the post-pandemic labour market receded, applications have fallen this year by 17%.
The increased application rate among sixth formers in England suggests that the appetite for higher education remains undimmed, despite the government’s efforts to talk up the benefits of alternatives such as apprenticeships or other training.
Michelle Donelan, the universities minister for England, said in a speech that, from next year, universities would be asked to include credit card-style smallprint on advertising for courses, including how many students go on to graduate-level jobs.
“Just like a credit card advertisement including information about APR, university adverts will reflect the need for students to understand where a course can take them,” Donelan said.
Donelan also announced that Ucas was to reform the use of personal statements by students as part of their university applications, amid concerns that the statements favoured more advantaged students.