Record number of poorer pupils apply to university

The numbers applying from China and India have increased significantly in the latest Ucas data.

17 February 2022

A record number of poorer pupils have applied to university or college this autumn, the latest figures from Ucas reveal.

Overall, 28% of young people from the most disadvantaged areas applied to university, up from 17.8% in 2013.

The number of pupils from poorer areas applying rose to 37,210 in 2022, up from 33,970 in 2021. In 2013, 25,010 pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds applied.

Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said the pandemic has led to universities putting more conferences and events online, which may have helped disadvantaged students find out more about applying to university.

“The reach you can get with digital just opens up some of those options… including those from disadvantaged backgrounds whereas previously they might have relied on something perhaps physical, or within a lesson or going to a conference,” she said.

Ms Marchant added that it is too early to say whether a recent boost in numbers applying to nursing and vocational subjects will continue for this year’s cohort of applicants, but added that “in something like nursing, there are vast numbers of disadvantaged students”, with many pupils drawn to subjects where there would be a “guaranteed career” after their studies.

“If you come from a disadvantaged background then you want to know at the end of the degree that you’re going to have a career and something you can build throughout your life.”

She said there has been a trend of students applying during the pandemic for vocational subjects such as law and nursing.

Students are now also more likely to learn about courses through social media channels than through websites, she said.

The findings must also be seen in the context of an increase of 3% in the UK population of 18-year-olds, she added.

Ucas’s figures show that the overall number of 18-year-olds applying for university places rose by 5% from 306,200 to 320,420, while the number of mature applicants fell by 17% from last year, having risen by 24% in 2021.

Overall applications for full-time undergraduate courses beginning this autumn fell slightly – by 1%.

Applications from China and India rose significantly, with a 12% increase in the number of Chinese applicants to 28,930, compared with 25,810 in 2021 and 6,900 in 2013.

The number of Indian applicants was up by 11% to 8,660 from 7,820 in 2021, and just 2,610 in 2013.

The number of Nigerian applicants also increased – by 47% to 2,380.

The number of applicants from Ireland rose to 5,100, continuing to buck a downward trend in applications from EU countries.

Ms Marchant said: “As we recover from the Covid pandemic and see the increased opening up of international travel, this year was always going to be pivotal for the international student market.

“Whilst applications have been very resilient throughout the pandemic, the robust demand from China, India and Hong Kong shows the enduring appeal of our world-class universities, with our recent report indicating that nearly nine in 10 still view the UK as an attractive place to study.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the increase in the number of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds applying to university is “all the more remarkable” given the disruption caused to their education by the pandemic.

But he added that the gap between poorer pupils and their peers entering the most selective universities is “particularly stark”.

“We are delighted that more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are applying for undergraduate courses,” he said.

“Their sense of confidence and aspiration is testament to the excellent work of their teachers in colleges and sixth forms.

“This is all the more remarkable given that education has been so disrupted over the past two years of the pandemic, and that this cohort will be the first to sit summer exams since 2019.

“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.”

Mr Barton said he recognises the work done by universities to improve access for poorer pupils through contextualised admissions processes and outreach programmes, but added that “more can and must be done” by both Government and the higher education sector to improve outcomes for poorer pupils from early years onwards.

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