“A new tougher era” was how university admissions were described in the Times this morning. For teenagers, celebrating the end of their GCSEs and AS Levels, and starting to think about university applications, there are clouds on the horizon. According to Lee Elliot Major, a Professor of Social Mobility, these young people are about to enter “the most highly competitive race for applicants in living memory”. It isn’t difficult to see why.
Higher education has never been in greater demand. In 1990 around 25% of 18 year olds in the UK proceeded to higher education. Today it’s 50%. Despite efforts by the government and organisations such as Euan Blair’s Multiverse to promote apprenticeships schemes, the status of university degrees has never been higher.
Then there’s the demographics. A population spike in the UK will mean that the school leaving population in the UK is set to rise by 2-3% each year this decade. By 2030, there will be around 186,000 more 18 year olds leaving school than ten years previously, a major pressure on the entire education system.
Alongside this, there is growing international demand. Despite a drop in EU applications following Brexit, applications from outside the EU have been steadily rising. Applicants from China and India increased by 12% and 11% respectively in 2022 and as long as UK universities remain some of the best regarded in the world, these numbers are only likely to increase.
However where previously British universities have expanded to meet the new demand, there are now clear signs of retrenchment in the higher education sector. According to UCAS, many universities are seeking to stabilise student numbers and a funding crisis at some institutions is leading to redundancies. Overall, the offer rate for university places has dropped from 72% in 2019 to 66.4% in 2022. Amongst top universities it has fallen to 55%.
Not only are university places becoming more competitive, but so too are the means by which applicants can be judged. A Level grade inflation makes the headlines each summer, but with some justification. When the new A* grade was introduced in 2010 it accounted for 8.1% of all A Level grades awarded. In 2021 that had rise to 19.1%. In the same time period the proportion of D and E grades had halved.
Meanwhile, for applicants from the independent sector, there is the ever growing emphasis on ‘contextual admissions’. A candidates socio-economic background plays an ever larger role in the admissions process with the ‘value’ of their achievements adjusted accordingly. For applicants from independent schools, their applications need not only to be great, but outstanding, if they are going to compete.
In short: there are more applicants, from more parts of the world, competing for fewer places, with grades that are worth less.
On a more positive note, for teenagers who have grown up with the pandemic, global warming and Paul McCartney headlining Glastonbury, they will probably take all of this in their stride!
However it is has never been more important that students start early in preparing for higher education and to make sure that they bring their very best to their applications. What worked for their parents’ generation, or even for their older siblings, probably won’t work for them. It’s a brave new world out there.
by Ed Ballard, University Admissions Consultant