Record fall in UK university entry rate, Ucas figures show

End-of-cycle data also confirm falling numbers of international student acceptances, plus a slowdown in overseas applications

December 7, 2023
 surfer falling from a wave to illustrate Top universities’ overseas income boost wiped out by inflation
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The entry rate for UK 18-year-olds has fallen by a record amount, according to Ucas figures, with more worrying signs for the sector also seen in the declining number of international students.

Figures from the Ucas End of Cycle Data release show that the overall entry rate for 18-year-olds across the UK fell from 37.5 per cent last year to 35.8 per cent in 2023.

This fall of 1.7 percentage points is the largest since comparable records began in 2006, and almost twice as big as any previous drop – even though clearing was busier than ever.

Experts had previously warned that a second successive fall in the entry rate could threaten the stability of the sector.

It had been hoped that figures released shortly after A-level results day, which indicated a record drop, could be moderated by the end of the cycle – but these hopes have now been dashed.

Overall, the number of UK 18-year-olds applying to courses in the country declined by almost 2 per cent to 324,575 – although this is still the second-highest level on record.

Of those accepted, about 92,000 went into high tariff institutions – a slight increase on the year before.

Meanwhile, the number accepted into lower tariff universities fell by 5.4 per cent from 2022, the second-largest decrease on record.

Mark Corver, co-founder of the dataHE consultancy and a former director of analysis and research at Ucas, said the figures should not be a surprise, but are nevertheless an “inescapably weak picture of demand and entry” across a broad set of dimensions.

“All the more worrying for universities will be that the weakness extends to key segments such as UK 18 year olds and higher fee students that they either expected, or needed, to be strong,” he added.

Sander Kristel, interim chief executive of Ucas, said geopolitics, the economy and rising living costs had all played a role in influencing this year’s cycle.

“We continue to see a strong commitment among young people to go to university or college,” he said.

“It is encouraging to see the number of UK 18-year-olds accepted on to a course remains significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels, down to a growing 18-year-old population and confidence in the value of a degree.”

Every region of the UK registered a decrease in entry rates year-on-year. The biggest came in the north-west of England, which saw a 2.7 percentage point drop.

And little help is coming from overseas, either.

With domestic tuition fees frozen at £9,250 in England, many universities have been increasingly relying on income from international students’ fees in recent years.

But the Ucas figures confirm the fears of the summer, when early data suggested a drop in international recruitment, that demand is slowing.

Although only a minority of international students apply via Ucas, the latest data show that 71,575 of all ages were accepted on to UK courses in 2023 – 3 per cent less than last year.

The number of applications from outside the European Union did rise slightly year-on-year, but it was the smallest increase since 2016.

And the number of accepted applicants from this bloc fell by 2.3 per cent – the largest drop in over a decade.

Janet Ilieva, founder of Education Insight, said the continued decline in EU demand and no growth in students from the rest of the world shows that the UK’s attractiveness as a global study destination has been “undermined”.

“A sector-wide effort is required to convince global learners the UK welcomes them,” added Dr Ilieva.

She said the recently announced review of the graduate route in a bid to curb immigration was amplifying the concerns of international students and their parents about whether the UK was the right place for their studies.

Some major contributing countries saw decreases in accepted students over the past year, with 6 per cent less Chinese students accepted on to courses.

There were also falls among students from Hong Kong (11 per cent) and Nigeria (13 per cent).

India recorded a slight increase, while some of the biggest rises in accepted applicants came from Pakistan (20 per cent), the United Arab Emirates (19 per cent) and the US (9 per cent).

A spokesperson for Universities UK said: “The decline of international students from outside the EU accepted into UK universities should come as a reminder of the importance of the Graduate Route in ensuring that the UK remains an attractive destination for students who wish to study abroad.”

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Reader's comments (1)

When you quote a percentage, it would help me if you stated explicitly what it was a percentage of. Is the "entry rate" of 35.8% a percentage of total applicants, or of the total population of that age?