2020 has been a tumultuous year for all. The UK higher education sector has had to contend with significant uncertainty about what the 2020/21 academic year would look like as a result of COVID.

CBRE has stayed close to the stats, blogging throughout the year as they have been released and paid attention to the numerous student surveys that have been published. The broad trends that have remained constant throughout the year have been:

  • Sentiment towards UK higher education remained strong
  • International students still see the UK as a major study destination
  • Only secondary markets are trending weaker

Do the latest available stats from UCAS about the 2020/21 academic year continue to support these trends?

In short, yes.

The Details:

UCAS, the major platform prospective students use to apply for a place at university, have now released national level undergraduate data and trends about the current academic year 2020/21. 

Undergraduate acceptances to higher education are the highest they have ever been, now reaching over 570,000. This is a year-on-year growth of 5% and increase of 46% over 15-years. Not only did the higher education sector have COVID to contend with in 2020, but the UK was at the bottom of a dip in the pool of 18-year olds who are the largest group of students entering the system. Despite this, the number acceptances of 18-year olds across all UK nations increased, a growth of 7% year-on-year overall. 37% of all 18-year olds in the UK were accepted up from 34% in 2019. This increase could have been amplified by COVID due to the lack of other available options ranging from employment to travel in addition to the last-minute changes to the grades used to gain a place as a result of the cancellation of A-level exams. 

While the ability to get to the UK has remained challenging throughout 2020, the demand from international students has remained. Both non-EU and EU acceptances are the highest they have ever been. Non-EU acceptances now exceed 52,000 which is a 17% year-on-year increase and increase of 88% over 15-years. Chinese students remain the largest cohort with over 16,100 acceptances – the highest ever and a 30% year-on-year growth. Acceptances from Indian students have grown by 53% year-on-year to 4,000 which is significant and a sign that the changes to the post-study visa rules are having an impact. 

Surprisingly, EU acceptances are up 2% year-on-year. This however could be a last hurrah for EU students ahead of the changes to their fee status for 2021/22 as a result of Brexit. However, with some universities now announcing EU student fees will remain the same as domestic for 2021/22 and the universities themselves absorbing any additional cost, it remains to be seen the long-term impact of Brexit on this cohort. 

Higher tariff universities have emerged the winners when looking at the institutions themselves. Main scheme applications* to higher tariff universities have increased 31% since 2012 (when the cap was lifted) whereas main scheme applications to medium tariff universities have increase by just 4% and lower tariff universities have decreased by 15%. Acceptances have followed a similar trend with the higher tariff universities growing the most by 41% since 2012, with medium and lower tariff universities increasing acceptances by 23% and 11% respectively. While this trend did exist in a pre-COVID landscape, the changes to grading in 2020 could also have fuelled this trend further. This can be seen when looking at the year-on-year stats too. Higher tariff universities grew the most in main scheme applications and total acceptances compared to medium and lower tariff universities.

Source: UCAS

What is clear from this brief review of the data released from UCAS is that the system, despite the challenges it has faced this year, continues to be over-subscribed. 
Source: UCAS

This trend also looks set to continue. In its latest 2020/21 End of Cycle report, UCAS predicts the increase in 18-year olds set to take place in the coming years means there will be a further 90,000 additional applicants by 2025. This will drive competition for places. At a macro-level, the trends we have seen throughout the year for student sentiment, international students and types of providers remain for 2020/21 despite the disruption brought about by COVID for the “COVID Cohort” as the student population for 2020/21 has been aptly named by UCAS. 

The micro-level story is yet to be fully seen and we await the next instalment from UCAS to be able to delve into this further. 

Definition of main scheme applications: The main UCAS application scheme through which up to five institutions/courses can be applied to. Opens in September and closes to new applications at 30 June. Source: UCAS

For more thought leadership, webinars and blogs