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UCAS: big differences between UK nations in applicants’ success rates to date

August 31, 2015

With the final daily clearing bulletin from UCAS issued last Friday, it’s possible to  see some emerging patterns in UK university admissions for 2015.   Further students will be admitted over the next few weeks and the numbers will still alter, but significant further changes are now unlikely.

The availability of places and the portability of student funding in each UK nation is clearly exercising a strong influence. While 82% of applicants from Wales are able to benefit in full from  their government’s student funding policies, only 42% of those from Northern Ireland are in that position (the equivalent figure is 63% for students from Scotland; 80% for those from England).

Success rates

For some years now,  acceptance rates for students from Scotland and Northern Ireland have lagged behind those for Wales and England (fig 11 here).  That looks set to continue.

The table below shows the total number of applicants from each UK nation by the end of June, compared with the number of students who were placed by last Friday.  For Scotland and Northern Ireland roughly 2 out of 3 applicants had been placed: for Wales and England it was around 4 in 5.  The percentages in all cases can be expected to rise a little further over the next few weeks, but not that dramatically.  These figures cover students admitted to a place anywhere in the UK: more below on why that’s not the whole story.

England Northern Ireland Scotland Wales
Applicants by 30 June 460,640 20,680 44,510 23,540
Placed by 28 August 366,290 13,880 29,610 19,210
% placed 79.5% 67.1% 66.5% 81.6%

Source UCAS: Application data here; data on placed applicants here.

Growth in supply vs demand

At the same time, numbers placed are growing much faster than numbers applying for Wales and England;  for Scotland, the number placed is growing somewhat faster than applications this year; while for Northern Ireland, the number placed  has actually dropped, while applications from there have risen faster than anywhere else in the UK. Uniquely in the UK, in Northern Ireland this year  the number of new funded places available  has contracted, as a direct result of financial pressures on the Northern Irish budget feeding through into university funding. What’s happening in Northern Ireland really deserves more attention.

England Northern Ireland Scotland Wales
Change in apps by end June 0.80% 1.90% 1.70% 0.40%
Change in placed students by 28 Aug 3.00% -2.70% 2.50% 2.10%

Source: UCAS.  Applications as above; individual country analysis for placed students on 28 August here (using like-for-like figures provided excluding X1 applicants for Scotland)

Some of the Scots not successful through UCAS may go on to take up an HN-level course in an FE college, bypassing UCAS.   One of the great unresolved issues in cross-UK comparisons is how and when to count in Scotland’s much larger population of sub-degree students studying in FE colleges, who are drawn disproportionately from more disadvantaged backgrounds. UCAS figures remain however  a reasonable basis for comparing entry to degree-level HE in universities across the UK.

Home or away?

One further issue for Scotland and Northern Ireland is how many students are given a place in their home nation.  Welsh and English students face no difference in cost by traveling over an internal UK border, as all their subsidies are fully portable.  By contrast, Scottish students leaving Scotland face a sharp difference in fee costs (zero versus up to £9,000 supported by a fee loan).  Northern Irish students similarly see a rise in borrowing,  to fund a fee of  up to £9,000 elsewhere in the UK, against only £3,805 at home.

The percentage of applicants successful in their home nation is lower again in both cases, particularly so for Northern Ireland. There has been a 10% drop in the number of home students placed in NI: it is only because of a surge of students taking up places in the UK (mainly England)  that there has not been such a sharp fall in Northern Irish students placed by UCAS overall.

Northern Ireland Scotland
Placed in home nation 8740 27940
% of all apps 42% 63%

Even in Scotland, from where smaller numbers leave, it remains worth wondering about the limitations of free university tuition as a policy, if almost two out of five of those seeking a university place can’t get it. A piece in yesterday’s Scotland on Sunday made much this point.

What’s enabling the increase in places?

Related to that, most of the growth in Scots with places this year appears to be accounted for either by students going elsewhere in the UK or reduced pressure from EU students.

Students going to other parts of the UK account for just under one-fifth of the growth.

2014 2015 Increase
Placed in rUK 1,540 1670 130 (8.4%)
Placed in Scotland 27,350 27940 590


Source: UCAS as above

At the same time, a drop of 260 in the number of EU students so far placed in Scotland (also entitled to Scottish Government funded places) has relieved some pressure in the system. If EU student numbers had held steady and thus taken up more funded places, the increase for Scottish students this year would have been a whole percentage point lower, at around 1.5% – supply would not have grown as fast as demand.

This disaggregation won’t be precise: some courses recruited through UCAS, such as the postgraduate LLB, are not publicly funded. Nevertheless there are strong indications here of a system which is relying quite heavily on out-of-country expansion and reduced EU pressure to meet growing demand from home students.

Footnote: where next?

The remit for the Widening Access Commission says that “the Government’s ambition is that a child born today in one of our most deprived communities should, by the time he or she leaves school, have the same chance of going to university (sic) as a child born in one of our least deprived communities”.  In that case, at some point there will have to be either a radical reduction in participation levels at the top, or a large expansion of opportunity well beyond what can be achieved through exporting more of our young people or putting off students from elsewhere in Europe.  That won’t come cheap.


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