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UCAS application rates for most deprived: up 8% in Wales, 5% in England, 2% in Scotland

February 4, 2016

This UCAS press notice gives some headline figures for applications to university across the UK, at the close of the “on time” deadline.  The full figures don’t appear to be on-line at the time of writing, but must be coming out later today and The Herald has published some further detail.

The release gives the absolute percentage change in all undergraduate applicants in each part of the UK, but only gives the demographic context (a 2.2% fall in 18 year olds) for England.  For absolute numbers, there’s been a 2% rise in Northern Ireland, 1% in Scotland and Wales and a 1% drop in England, but UCAS notes that application rates for 18 year olds are at their highest in all parts of the UK, except Northern Ireland, where they have fallen slightly (no figures are given).  Changing demography matters, in other words, as does the behaviour of older applicants, any variation in which across the UK can’t be fully unpicked without seeing all the figures.

Unsurprisingly, the Scottish Government is highlighting that this is the highest number of applicants ever in absolute terms and, according to The Herald, the Cabinet Secretary for Education “highlighted an improvement in applications from students from the country’s poorest communities”, adding that “free tuition [is] a key part of our work to ensure access to higher education remains based on the ability to learn not ability to pay.”

It’s worth noting though that the UCAS press notice gives the change in the application rate for the most deprived 20% across the UK.  Wales is seeing the fastest growth, at 8%. England is on 5%.  Scotland sees a 2% rise.  Northern Ireland sees a 4% drop.

These new numbers suggest that the gap between Scotland and the other parts of the UK in application rates to university-level HE by disadvantaged young people has widened this year: Scotland must be at around 16% and other parts of the UK all now above 20%. I’ve argued elsewhere that making direct connections between particular student support policies and changes in applications is not to be advised – the relationship is complicated, as these figures illustrate.  But it seems fair to say that these figures don’t help with any argument that says free tuition is essential to encouraging the most disadvantaged to apply to university.  If it’s going to be justified, it has to be on other grounds.

Of course, the figures that really matter for actual access are acceptances, which we won’t know until much later this year. As The Herald notes, in the absence of a strategy to increase places (and bear in mind the budget agreed yesterday cut university funding and froze spending on student support) the next question is how many of this “record number” of applicants will be able to get a place.

Footnote

The Herald also reports a 4.3% increase in applications to Scotland from rUK students subject to fees of up to £9,000.

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