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UCAS acceptances: Scottish students up by 2.5%, Welsh by 4.3%, English by 3.4%

August 28, 2014

The initial phase of clearing is nearly over: UCAS will publish its last daily update tomorrow.  At this stage last year, just over 90% of Scottish students had been accepted, so there will be further growth over the next few months, and scope for the figures to shift a little more.  However by now the main trends ought to be clear enough and it is reasonable to look for some indication in these figures of how things are going.

When the daily UCAS series started, the Scottish Government issued a press notice (Record Higher education acceptances, press notice 14 August) highlighting a 4% rise in acceptances for Scottish students.   The number of Scottish students accepted onto a course is still at higher levels than in previous years: however, over the past fortnight the year-on-year percentage increase for Scots has fallen somewhat and other figures have also moved considerably.

This post looks at various figures in the latest UCAS data release which are worth some attention.  The figures below are based on today’s, second-last UCAS daily update.  Movements in the final day are generally pretty small. [Update 29 August: as illustrated by the small changes since yesterday, now noted below.]

All the figures below need to be read with the caveat at this stage, compared to the same point last year. A table at the end brings all the figures together.

Scottish students

The year-on-year increase in Scottish-domiciled students accepted onto a course through UCAS is currently standing at 2.4% [2.5% at 29 August]. More Scots had an accepted place on results day, but fewer have received a place through clearing. This increase in acceptances is in line with the most recent reported rise in applications from Scottish-domiciled students this year (2.3%).

There has been a 2.7% [2.8% at 29 August] increase in Scots in Scotland (compared to 4.4% on results day).   There has been 2.5% [unchanged] drop in Scots going to the rest of the UK, in contrast to the rise which the initial figures suggested.

Students on Scottish Government funded places

Scottish and non-UK EU students are entitled to free tuition and their recruitment is ring-fenced (and capped) by the Scottish Government.  More on that here. The total growth in Scottish and EU students in Scotland combined is 3.3% [at 29 August, 3.2%].   Within that, non-UK EU students have risen by 7.1% (less than  the 10.6% increase originally reported on 14 August).  [Note: this group shows the largest change since yesterday, falling to 6.3%.] As already seen, Scots in Scotland have  increased by rather less.

This means that non-UK EU students account for just over one-quarter [now 24.4%] of the total growth this year in combined Scottish/EU recruitment through UCAS.  They account for 13% [unchanged] of all entrants who are either Scottish or non-UK EU.

Students in Scottish universities

Seeing a larger rise than Scottish would-be students are Scottish institutions.  There has been a 4.3% [unchanged] increase in the total number of students from all domiciles accepted into Scottish universities through UCAS.  As a result, while Scottish students are seeing some of the lowest year-on-year increases in the UK, Scottish institutions are currently seeing the highest rise in acceptances (English institutions are at 3.8%, Welsh at 2.3% and Northern Irish at 1.7%). [Now 3.7%, 2.2% and 1.9%]

This is driven particularly by a 10.6% increase [unchanged] in fee-paying students from the rest of the UK. Students from outside the EU have risen by 3.7% [now 4.5%]. Rest of UK and non-EU students are recruited without government restrictions, outside the cap which applies for Scottish and EU students.

All this means that Scots are currently seeing the lowest growth of any group entering Scottish universities: the 740 [now 760] additional Scottish students compared to this time last year account for only 45% [unchanged] of the total year-on-year growth in UCAS acceptances in Scotland.  Scottish-domiciled students account for 69% [unchanged] of the total number of UCAS acceptances.

Increases in Scots going to university and in the numbers going to Scottish universities are sometimes quoted  interchangeably in discussion and reporting.  With the growth in recruitment most driven this year by non-Scots, it’s particularly worth being aware that the two are different things.  Only the growth in Scots going to university tells us much from a domestic education/participation perspective.  It’s likely however that many reading or hearing a headline don’t  pick up on the difference, and they do not always get much help in doing so. Thus,  this BBC report noted without further explanation, in the middle of a piece largely  concerned with the situation of Scots, that: “A spokeswoman for Universities Scotland said demand for places had been high and the expectation was that it could be a good year for student numbers”.

UK comparisons

Compared to the 2.4% increase in Scots accepted onto courses, the year on year increase in acceptances for students from England studying anywhere in the UK  is 3.5% [now 3.4%]. For Welsh students the figure is 4.3% [unchanged].  For the Northern Irish, it is -0.1% [now 0%].

UCAS reported in January (end of cycle report: here) that in 2013,  acceptances from the UK were “up 27,400 (+6.7 per cent), more than reversing the fall in 2012 and resulting in the highest number of acceptances of UK domiciled applicants from any cycle.”  This year’s figures will therefore be “record highs” beyond Scotland.  Someone may want to break this news to BBC Scotland, which believes that “Scotland is the only part of the UK which has seen a rise in university and college admissions” (report as before).

For English students, as for Scottish ones, the increase is roughly in line with the increase in applications this year (3%). For the Welsh, it is running ahead of the increase in applications, which was also 3%. For Northern Irish students,  the small fall [now no change] in acceptances reflects a 0% increase in applications.

The total growth in EU acceptances in the UK  is higher than in Scotland, at 8.1% [unchanged].  However, this is from a much lower base. Non-UK EU students account for 5.2% [unchanged]  of all UK acceptances, as against 10.5% [now 10.4%] of acceptances in Scotland.

For non-EU students growth is slower in Scotland this year than the UK average, at 3.7% versus 5.6% [now 4.5% vs 5.3%]. 

Widening Access

This year UCAS is publishing data using “POLAR2” quintiles, which divide up the UK into smaller areas, depending on how likely it is that a young person will go into higher education. The lowest quintile represents those in the bottom 20% of such areas. Comparisons of the absolute numbers between Scotland and the rest of the UK, in particular, is unreliable, due not least to the large number here who undertake sub-degree HE, almost all in FE colleges.  All widening access measures have their short-comings and are open to criticism, but this is the only data UCAS provides on access and is therefore still worth a look. Large differences in trends ought still to mean something.

The year on year increase in recruitment from the lowest quintile, ie the fifth of young people living in the UK’s lowest participation areas, is 17% in Wales, 12% [now 13%] in Scotland, 10% [now 11%] in Northern Ireland and 8% in England.  Growth was higher in the lowest quintile than any other in all parts of the UK.

The table below shows UCAS’s latest reporting on how the entry rate for this group has changed over the past 5 years (ie how likely it is that any young person from a very low HE participation area will end up with a place through UCAS),  at this stage in the process each year: see POLAR2 report here.  On this measure, Scotland has seen the least improvement over 5 years, though it is in the mid-range for the UK over the past year. Even with all the provisos above,  and the scope for some further movement, the very least we can say is that the Scottish system is not leading the field here [Update: revised figures for final daily update also provided, showing minor changes, but basic pattern unchanged.].

UCAS Entry rate POLAR2 quintile 1 final Thursday in August Change since
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2013 2010
England 13.40% 14.40% 14.40% 15.50% 17.10% 10% 28%
NI 14.30% 13.40% 14.00% 15.10% 17.20% 14% 20%
Scot 8.30% 7.50% 7.90% 8.10% 9.30% 15% 12%
Wales 11.50% 12.00% 13.10% 13.20% 15.80% 20% 37%
Update:  UCAS Entry rate POLAR2 quintile 1: final Friday in August Change since
2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2013 2010
England 13.50% 14.40% 14.40% 15.60% 17.10% 10% 27%
NI 14.20% 13.40% 14.10% 15.20% 17.40% 14% 23%
Scot 8.40% 7.50% 7.90% 8.10% 9.40% 16% 12%
Wales 11.50% 12.00% 13.10% 13.20% 15.80% 20% 37%



UCAS provides a lot of numbers from which it has always been possible to extract a variety of stories. It does not cover most recruitment to sub-degree courses in Scotland. Even allowing for that and the likelihood of some further change, some interesting patterns are emerging from the most recent figures about access to degree-level HE.

A cap on recruitment to government-funded places is not unique to Scotland.  However, with Scots seeing the slowest growth, the cap seems to be having the tightest effect on them of any group. This is partly due to greater competition from EU students.     However, EU students are not the whole story.  As the number of Scots leaving Scotland is holding steady, but not growing, all the pressure for increased provision falls on the Scottish system: there is no cross-border safety valve.

So the capacity of our system to expand in response to demand, including EU demand, is an issue worth watching.  As noted here, at 75% or less, for the last few years the acceptance rate for Scottish students has been low, historically and relative to the rest of the mainland UK.  See table 15 in the January 2013  end of cycle report here. With acceptances growing in line with applications in Scotland and England and faster than applications in Wales, Scottish acceptance rates seem unlikely to improve much this year, in absolute or relative terms.

In fact, it’s possible to calculate  that the number of unplaced Scottish applicants is currently 14,570, compared to 14,318 at the same point last year (a 1.8% increase) [update: 14,440/14,218/1.6%].  This could well be another “record number” (only those with access to the full UCAS data for previous years could say).  On past trends, around one-fifth of these could still find a place: indeed, almost 3,000 will need to, to avoid the final figure for year-on-year change being lower than now, when UCAS publishes it final analysis next January.

Other applicants will have changed their mind about going to university, or will find other education, training or employment in which they will flourish.  Some will apply again. It is by no means a disaster for an individual to be unplaced at this stage: there is more to life than university.  However,  a system that encourages aspiration to university but then disappoints increasing numbers might be worth some attention. The present arrangements appear better at enabling Scottish universities to increase their fee income than Scottish applicants to increase their chance of going to university.

Indeed, it looks increasingly arguable that the critical factor for growth in the number of students who can actually get to go to university – including from disadvantaged backgrounds – is not what fees are charged but how able a system is to grow. Evidence for that comes not only from the very large increase in uncapped rUK students in Scotland, but also from growth for Welsh and Northern Irish students being fastest amongst those going to England. In fact, among students studying in-country, it is English students who are currently seeing the largest rise in the UK. The looser capping of English institutions seems to be having an effect.

A related trend to watch is whether we are seeing a long-term shift towards a greater proportion of recruitment to Scottish universities being from outside Scotland.   One  question here is whether fee-paying students are being charged enough to cover their costs, to avoid under-funded growth creeping in, either system wide or in particular universities, or parts of universities, and how that is being monitored. Another question relates to the impact on widening access in Scotland.  Student mobility tends to be associated with more advantaged social groups.  Without questioning the general value of a system which attracts students from beyond its borders, it is fair to wonder what the implications might be of more out-of-Scotland undergraduate recruitment (rUK, EU and non-EU) for the nature of the Scottish student body. Will it make our universities, some in particular, seem even more socially distant for students from non-traditional backgrounds?

Also worth watching is the data on widening access, which for all its limitations is presenting a picture of greater improvement, in absolute terms, and often relative to Scotland, in other parts of the UK which sits at odds with the story often told here.

The moral of the tale…

Almost any set of UK-wide higher education statistics is now deployed in Scotland to prove that free tuition (plus almost entirely debt-based living cost support) is the most successful model imaginable and all others are a disaster.     This was recently done (rather questionably) with UCAS application statistics, as discussed here and is evident also in this BBC report, already quoted above, both in the main text and the ministerial quotes. Fortunately for the Scottish Government, its presentation of any HE-related figures, not least any comparative ones with the rest of the UK,  is generally reported without much (or often any) critical analysis in the media.

In fact, if any country comes out particularly well on the headline figures for now, it is Wales, with the highest rise in the number of its students being accepted for a place, the highest  year-on-year increase in acceptances from the bottom POLAR2 quintile; and the highest increase in the entry rate for that quintile this year and over 5 years. I have argued elsewhere that the Welsh student support system has some particular strengths in terms of equity, upfront generosity and supporting student choice.  Linking its student support system to its performance this year in UCAS would be a mistake: the causal relationships in admissions and access are very complicated and next year the story may be different.  But these figures do at least provide a counter-argument to anyone who wishes to claim that the Welsh Assembly Government’s low fee/high grant approach is by definition worse than Scotland’s, from the perspective of supporting opportunity or widening access.  It remains, of course, controversial from the point of view of institutions.

Back in Scotland, there is nothing wrong with presenting rising numbers of acceptances, and general growth in university recruitment, as good news (unless you fall into the camp which believes university expansion has gone too far).  But looking beyond the headlines for Scotland in the most recent UCAS data is a reminder that (a) a fully-funded, relatively tightly capped, non-portable system may carry a social and long-term economic cost, in terms of its more limited capacity to accommodate growing domestic demand and (b) there is no clear correlation between any particular approach to fees and widening access to higher education.



 Table of figures

The sources for this table are the UCAS daily clearing analyses for Thursday 27 August 2013 here and Thursday 28 August 2014, available here.

[Update: the figures for final day Friday are available via the same inks.]

2013 2014 % Nos
By domicile Scotland 28,640 29340 2.4 700
England 342,220 354040 3.5 11,820
Northern Ireland 14,210 14200 -0.1 -10
Wales 17,970 18750 4.3 780
EU 22,920 24780 8.1 1,860
Non-EU 31,380 33,150 5.6 1,770
In Scotland Scottish-dom 27,070 27810 2.7 740
EU 3,970 4240 6.8 270
(Scot-dom +EU) 31,040 32,050 3.3 1,010
Non-EU 2,410 2,500 3.7 90
Rest of UK 5300 5860 10.6 560
All in Scotland 38,750 40410 4.3 1,660
Scottish in rest of UK 1570 1530 -2.5 -40
Welsh in Wales 10610 10710 0.9 100
English in England 327,600 338320 3.3 10,720
NI in NI 9600 9620 0.2 20
Wales to England 7250 7920 9.2 670
NI to England 3350 3420 2.1 70
All in England 384860 399400 3.8
All in Wales 23160 23700 2.3
All in NI 10570 10750 1.7
Scottish domiciled applicants (at June) 42,958 43,910 2.2
Applicants less acceptances 14,318 14,570 1.8

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