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UCAS data: an endlessly flexible source for governments

November 27, 2017

Today UCAS released some of the data which will end up in its full 2017 End of Cycle report. Its reporting provides a great example of the endless flexibility of UCAS data as a source of headlines, and the SG’s flexibility on whether UCAS is a source of comparable cross-UK figures

Comparisons

The SG has taken a pretty hard line in the last 18 months on how UCAS’s coverage is too incomplete in Scotland to make comparisons reliable.  The line has run across government: here for example is the Cabinet Secretary for Culture in July this year.

hyslop

The caveat about the higher proportion of HE students in Scotland who are outside UCAS, because they are doing shorter HE courses in college, such as HNs, has become increasingly prominent in UCAS publication in the past few years: it is the very first thing you will read in a couple of the documents published today.

I ended up writing a piece defending UCAS as a source of comparable data a while ago, because the force of rebuttal was so strong.  I’ve discussed the same question on More or Less. I have argued that these figures have limitations, but remain useful especially as a source of comparative information on entry into university direct from school: the “non-comparable” argument is too sweepingly dismissive.

So today’s SG news release was a bit of a surprise. It’s worth quoting in full (emphasis added).

UCAS figures also show highest ever acceptances to Scottish universities.

 

A record number of Scots were accepted to a UK university in 2017, figures published today show.

Over 36,500 Scottish domiciled applicants accepted a place for this academic year – an increase of over 850 or 2.4%.

All other UK countries saw a decrease in the number of their residents accepted to university.

The figures were released by UCAS in their first End of Cycle Report 2017. It also shows a record number of all applicants accepted to Scottish higher education institutions in 2017 – up 1.7%.

Further and Higher Education Minister, Shirley-Anne Somerville, said:

“It is great to see that Scotland is bucking the trend across the UK, with more of our prospective students securing a place at university. This follows on from the record numbers last year.

It shows that our education system is supporting an increasing number of people to access higher education – giving them the skills they need to succeed.

“This is also another record year for Scotland’s universities, with the highest ever number of applicants accepted to study here. It is testament to the fact that Scotland remains a destination of choice for students, due in no small part to the reputation for excellence that our institutions have worked hard to achieve.”

Background

The UCAS Undergraduate End of Cycle Report 2017, Applicants and acceptances, patterns by age is published by UCAS.

Can figures which don’t include colleges show “that our education system is supporting an increasing number of people to access higher education“? Well, no:  for exactly the reasons the SG has previously argued, to make a claim about all forms of HE we would need to know the trends in college entry too, and the SG does not publish those in the same way.

The government is on safer ground with their cross-UK comparisons of university entry (as others were before) because this is what UCAS covers.  But again, on their previous strict reading of comparability, without knowing what’s happened with non-UCAS college-to-university movement, even there the picture is incomplete. I would guess that it’s unlikely this has fallen and it’s more likely also to be rising. But we don’t know that from these figures. Nor at the moment will the SG from any others, to the best of my understanding.

Anyway, comparisons are back in fashion and that’s generally more sensible than the all-out rubbishing of UCAS figures for this purpose. But a touch more consistency would be good.

Ups and downs

The success of the Scottish government in getting its news lines to provide the Scottish copy on this was evident. Its lines were prominently reported: it is likely that reflects the Press Association’s circular, but I don’t know.  These are the pieces I have so far found:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-42128344

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/scots-buck-trend-as-record-number-get-into-university-vpmd86m3s

https://www.eveningexpress.co.uk/news/scotland/record-number-of-scots-win-place-at-uk-university/

http://www.insider.co.uk/news/scots-students-getting-into-university-11592604

In isolation, the SG news release leaves a sense that everyone else is going to hell in a handcart.

Yet UCAS observed in its press release that

A record proportion of 18 year olds, from across the UK, gained a place at university or college in 2017. This is despite a fall of 1.2 per cent in the 18 year old population in the UK in 2017. … The entry rate for 18 year olds in England increased by 0.8 percentage points to 33.3 per cent, whilst the entry rate for the same group in Scotland increased by 0.6 percentage points to 25.9 per cent. The entry rate for Northern Ireland decreased by 0.4 percentage points to 34.5 per cent, and for Wales it fell 0.1 percentage points to 29.4 per cent.

I’ve not seen any of this picked up in Scottish reports (although I can’t see past the Times’ paywall: its headline follows the SG’s news release.)

Dig further, and UCAS adds
There were 207,920 acceptances from 18 year olds from England in 2017, the
highest number on record. This is 3,075 (+1.5 per cent) higher than the number of
acceptances in 2016. England was the only UK country which had an increase in
the number of 18 year old acceptances in 2017. The number of 18 year old acceptances from Scotland remained unchanged from last year, at 14,875.
The number of 18 year old acceptances from Wales and Northern Ireland fell in
2017.
UCAS looks at the “cohort entry rate” for those who were 18 last year, which brings together entry at 18 or 19 for that group. This rose in every country.
These increases resulted in the  highest cohort entry rates ever recorded for England, Scotland , and Wales. For England, Northern Ireland, and Wales the increases were driven by higher proportions of 18 year olds entering HE in 2016 , while in Scotland it was driven by an increase in both the 18 year old entry rate in 2016, and an increase in the first time 19 year old entry rate in 2017.
The graph is useful here
Young entry
The increase in the Scottish 19 year old figure probably reflects more people being included in the figures who are moving from college to university, having already done an HN. Some of that could in theory be due to more of these transfers being handled through UCAS, rather than an increase in actual transfers. But it’s impossible to tell how far that is having any significant influence on the numbers, and other data have shown a general rise in college to university movement in past recent years.

Over the longer term, UCAS notes

In 2017, the 18 year old entry rates for England, Scotland and Wales are substantially higher than at the beginning of the reporting period in 2006. In England, 18 year olds were 35 per cent more likely to enter higher education compared to 11 years ago, while in Scotland and Wales they were 17 per cent more likely.

England’s all-age figures were particularly pulled down, it appears, by the sharp drop in older entrants to nursing. This happened just as the UK government introduced fees and abolished quite high grants for this group in a single step.

UCAS notes in its Executive Summary

In England, record high 18 year old entry rates every year since 2013 have placed  downward pressure on the number of 19 year olds applying, and consequently
being accepted. This, in combination with changes to student support arrangements for those starting nursing courses in England, and a favourable employment market, will all have played a role in the drop in applications and acceptances from older age groups this year. These falls mean that, for the first time since 2012, overall UK acceptances have decreased . However, this 0.5 per cent decrease still puts UK acceptances at the third highest on record.

 It adds elsewhere

The larger falls among older age groups were, in part, due to the fall in applicants to
nursing courses in England. As reported in June, there was a 23 per cent reduction
in applicants from England to nursing courses this year. Because nursing applicants
account for a large proportion of all applicants, from older age groups (40 per cent of main scheme applicants aged 25 and over applied to nursing in 2016), the patterns for nursing will have had a large impact on the overall patterns shown in Figure 2.1.
The full picture across the UK is clearly more complex than the SG news release and most of its reporting suggested.  It wasn’t SG’s job to provide that information, but the limited ability of the press here who chose to report these numbers to put them in context is very apparent.

Particularly good news stories for Scotland that were missed

Interestingly, although the SG highlighted that Scottish providers saw a +1.7% increase of entrants from all domiciles, it  did not note this was the highest in any part of the UK (page11 here).

It also could have noted that Scotland saw the sharpest increase in acceptance (in effect, success) rates for 18 years olds: however, this is from  a base which was historically low, and remains well below the English and Welsh position. As argued elsewhere, this is likely to be due to the more limited capacity of the Scottish system to expand in line with rising demand. Northern Ireland has a similar problem.

acceptance rates

What’s going on?

The last set of figures we had from UCAS showed that Scotland was very unusual in seeing a fall in entrants from the EU this year.

eu in UK

We don’t have the new figures for Scotland broken down by domicile, yet (we should next month). But it would take a big shift in a short time for this to have changed. It seems likely therefore that for some reason universities in Scotland, specifically, have admitted far fewer EU students this year.  We don’t yet know if this was due to a particularly sharp drop in applicants from the EU, or some change in university admissions practice north of the border.

This would have left more room for Scots, with whom EU students compete for funded places. Relatively few Scots go outside Scotland to study, so the chances are that that 2.4% rise for Scots across the UK is close to figure for Scots in Scotland.  So the SG can fairly  point to the rise in Scottish domiciled students (it would be criticised for a fall, after all). But it’s probably not SG policy that’s mainly responsible for that but the – as yet – unexplained drop in EU students here, after many years in which their numbers have risen much faster than those for Scottish entrants.

Meantime, older students in England have taken a particular hit, part of which seems likely to be directly due to local policy, affecting a specific group (nurses). It’s also possible that the abolition of grants in England is having some effect on this group in particular: that needs more thought and analysis. Once the other devolved nations are added, the complexities of possible causes for differences multiply. Are the Welsh figures affected by people hanging back for the post-Diamond changes next year, which will involve higher fees but also higher grants, as part of a general increase in the combined value of loans and grants for maintenance?

Looking at UCAS data across the UK functions mainly as a reminder of how complicated the relationship between policy and changing numbers can be.

Conclusion

The need to turn complicated UCAS data into instant headlines puts an increasingly strained conventional media under enormous pressure to look for (or pick up) relatively simple accounts. The variety of things which can be lifted from the figures means that it would be a flat-footed government that couldn’t find something to put in a headline.

This year UCAS has made things a bit easier, by having a phased release: today’s figures will be followed up by a further fuller briefing next month.  That gives everyone time to digest this set ahead of the next round of headlines, which ought to cover things like entry by area disadvantage (SIMD in Scotland) and provide figures for different domiciles in each UK nation.

Whether the SG will hold on to its rediscovered willingness to compare UCAS numbers at that point is impossible to say. But it will be interesting to watch.

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