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UCAS acceptances for Scottish students: falling or just falling behind?

January 2, 2015

UCAS recently published its annual  “end of cycle report” for 2014.  Though less complete than the 2014 entrant figures which will be issued by  HESA just over a year from now, UCAS figures are a useful canary in a cage – they give early notice of changes in recruitment to university-level higher education and often attract media and political interest (see for example this press notice from December 2012 in which a rise in acceptances in Scotland and a fall in England was used by the Scottish Government to justify its student funding policy).  An unexpected aspect of the data for Scottish students this year does not appear to have been picked up in politics or the media so far, however.

The figures reported to UCAS by institutions for students from each part of the UK for each year between 2006 and 2014 are in footnote 1 below. At first pass, Scottish students have seen the slowest rise in acceptances in the UK in recent years, including an absolute decrease compared both to 2011 and to 2013.  In summary:

  • compared to 2013, acceptances have risen by 4.0% for students from England (UCAS notes it has placed its highest-ever number of English applicants this year) and 2.6% for those from Wales, and fallen by 0.7% for the Northern Irish, who like the Scots are in a tightly capped system. The number of Scottish acceptances reported has fallen by 3.7%.
  • compared to 2011, the last year before the large fee increase applied to English and certain other UK students,  acceptances are up by 10% for students from Wales, 4.9% for Northern Ireland, 4.2% from England and have fallen by 1.6% for Scotland.
  • compared to 2006, the longest period examined in the report, the number of acceptances is 32.8% higher for English students, 17.6% higher for those from Wales,16.7% for Northern Ireland and 13.1% higher for Scotland.

However, UCAS warns that there may be a problem with the data for Scotland.  Due to a possible change in the recording of very late acceptances in a few institutions, the organisation suggests that the number of applicants and acceptances in Scotland in 2014 could be understated by up to 2,000, a non-trivial difference of up to 6.6%.  The way this caveat is explained itself however begs some questions, explored in footnote 2 below.

Further, despite having entered what appears to be a comprehensive warning about lack of comparability with previous years and often being strikingly silent about Scotland in its narrative text when discussing individual parts of the UK, the report nevertheless quotes overall UK-wide results and does discuss Scottish figures in a few cases, even where the general problem with applicant/acceptance data would appear to apply.  Notably, it includes the 2014 Scottish figures in various time series graphs comparing figures over time for each UK jurisdiction, without drawing further attention to any concerns about year-to-year comparability, other than in notes to tables on pages 103 and 107.  By contrast, a different, long-established issue affecting Scotland-UK comparisons is repeated frequently in the body of the text, wherever relevant. All this makes for a lack of clarity about how far the  2014 Scottish data is or is not regarded as meaningful.

Even adding the maximum number of potentially missing Scottish students, i.e. 2,000, still leaves Scotland as no more than a  mid-table performer within the UK, in terms of change in the number of its own students accepted through UCAS (adding 1,000 is not enough to prevent Scotland from being the poorest or near-poorest performer).  With the full adjustment of 2,000 (calculations by this author):
  • compared to 2013, acceptances for Scots would have increased by 2.6%, in line with the figure for Wales, but still lower than that for England.  The first 1,180 extra students are needed just to tip Scotland from decrease to increase.
  • compared to 2011, acceptances would be 4.8% higher, a rate just above England, in line with Northern Ireland and well behind Wales.  The first 1,800 extra students are needed just  to prevent Scotland from having the lowest level of growth in the UK over this period, bringing it up to the English figure of 4.2%.  Given that 2,000 is the maximum number UCAS suggests may be missing, it seems quite possible that Scottish students could in fact have seen the slowest growth in acceptances in the UK since 2011.
  • compared to 2006, acceptances would be 20.6% higher, a little above Wales and Northern Ireland, but still less than two-thirds of the figure for England. The first 965 extra students are needed to prevent Scotland from having the lowest level of growth in the UK over the period, bringing it up to the Northern Irish figure of 16.7%.
It is problematic that what’s happening through UCAS  in Scotland this year has been left so unclear.  As Sir Roger Kirkpatrick once put it to Robert The Bruce, “You doubt?”. We are left in the odd position that, on the one hand, we have figures which show a fall in acceptances for Scots and, on the other, a sort-of instruction that we should just ignore this.
If, as the report suggests, this is an issue affecting just a few providers, at first sight it ought to be feasible to do more work to get a clearer view of what the comparable figures would be.   At the very least, the questions raised by the way the caveat is presented, set out below, merit an answer. Without that,  not only is there in effect no reliable current UCAS end of cycle  report for Scotland, but there will be difficulties making comparisons next year, also.

If further analysis showed that the original figures were more or less correct, or understated by no more than around 1,000, it would raise significant questions about the way these figures have been used by the Scottish Government in the past.  Indeed, even if the full 2,000 are added, these questions do not go away completely.

Given how these figures have been used in the past to justify policy in Scotland, surely among those in a position to commission further work,  someone should be interested in getting closer to the truth of the position this year?

Footnote (1): UCAS acceptance figures as reported at end of cycle 2006 to 2014
The figures in the tables below are shown in Figure 4 of the report.  The actual numbers can be found in the associated zipped data file on the UCAS site linked above.
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
England 288030 305785 342440 359125 359005 367150 342755
Northern Ireland 12385 13000 13430 13600 13505 13790 13285
Scotland 26800 27220 29390 31030 32250 30800 30900
Wales 17150 17365 18595 20195 18670 18325 19305
2013 2014
England 367900 382515
Northern Ireland 14555 14455
Scotland 31495 30315
Wales 19665 20165
Footnote (2): The UCAS caveat
The opening notes to the report state (emphasis added):
In 2014 there have been fewer very late acceptances than in previous cycles recorded in the UCAS data for some Scottish providers. These changes may mean that the number of applicants and acceptances to Scottish UCAS providers in 2014 recorded through UCAS could be understated by up to 2,000 compared to how applicants and acceptances have been reported in recent cycles. This means that comparing 2014 applicants and acceptances for Scottish providers (or those from Scotland) to other cycles will not give an accurate measure of change.
There are some unexplained arguments here:
  • From identifying that something “may” be a problem UCAS concludes that the figures  “will”  not be comparable.
  • The recording of fewer very late acceptances is treated as a sign of likely under-recording compared to previous years, when there would appear to be an alternative, simpler explanation – that there were simply fewer very late acceptances.  There may be good reasons why this is not regarded as being at least equally plausible as a contributory factor, but if so they are not explained.   As already noted on this site, the Scottish system is relatively tightly capped.   There were fewer opportunities available for Scottish-domiciled students in Scotland through clearing than for other groups in and out of Scotland. In addition to this,  it is not clear how far new places announced for this year have created additional opportunities for new entrants to HE, as opposed to backfilling previous unfunded growth or enabling more students to transfer into degree courses mid-way, from HE programmes in colleges. Further, UCAS notes that across the UK as a whole, there was a 6.8% drop in the numbers accepted after a late application direct to clearing, which may be relevant, given that UCAS identifies “very late” acceptances as the area producing unexpectedly low results.  Therefore, while an  absolute fall in acceptances would be surprising,  it is not theoretically impossible: there was a 4.5% drop in Scottish students accepted through UCAS between 2010 and 2011, for example.  A  reduced capacity to absorb people late in the recruitment process is certainly plausible.
  • How a change in the reporting of late acceptances should be expected to affect applicant figures is not spelt out.
The figure of 2,000 itself moreover requires an assumption that there were marginally more late acceptances this year than last.  Footnote 3 below compares how acceptances built up over the recruitment period last year and this.  In 2013, acceptances rose by 9.6% between the last daily clearing report in August and the end of cycle reportIn absolute numbers, this means there were 1,910 fewer cases reported this year between late August and December. In proportionateterms, there were 1,980 fewer additional students than in 2013.

Footnote (3): UCAS acceptance figures for Scottish-domiciled applicants: 2013 and 2014 compared at all given reporting points.

UCAS publishes information on the numbers accepted at various points over the year, in particular on every week day in the fortnight following A-level results (the “daily clearing analysis”).  The table below shows how the figures for Scottish domiciled applicants compared at each reported point between this year and last.  Over the initially period,  the general pattern was of an early surge appearing to settle down to a position closer that of the year before, but still ahead. The data is all available in various documents on the UCAS site.
Reporting point Year Difference
2013 2014 Nos %
Highers day 23430 24480 1050 4.5
A level day 26910 27910 1000 3.7
plus 1 27150 28080 930 3.4
plus 4 27480 28340 860 3.1
plus 5 27640 28500 860 3.1
plus 6 27800 28660 860 3.1
plus 7 27940 28810 870 3.1
plus 8 28090 28910 820 2.9
plus 11 28460 29110 650 2.3
plus 12 28550 29190 640 2.2
plus 13 28640 29340 700 2.4
plus 14 28740 29470 730 2.5
End of cycle report 31495 30315 -1180 -3.7
Difference between last daily clearing analysis report and end of cycle report 2755 845 -1910
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