UK admissions is about to get a lot harder

Guides / UK

One of my great interests in the world of university admissions is demographics. I’m not a maths or stats guy, so I don’t know if I could ever be classed as a ‘wonk’, but some of the most powerful lectures I remember from my History degree at Oxford were on how demographic change impacted events, such as how population recovery after the Black Death created expectations that eventually led to the Peasant’s Revolt. Demography is important.

I’m the guy who gets annoyed when we see news stories on topics about how the number of international students coming to the UK is ‘up’ or ‘down.’ Raw numbers are good, but if the UK attracts fewer total students to study in the UK from, say, Greece, but the total number of students in that year group in Greece was 10% down on the previous year, ‘real’ numbers could actually be up.

This is important because the UK has been in the midst of a really odd demographic situation for a few years. Going back a while, there’s been fewer and fewer students in the school-age population each year, meaning that there have been fewer potential university applicants, year-on-year. At the same time, the government removed the numbers cap for how many students universities could take, meaning that universities could expand their intake.

So fewer students around, but more places available for them.

As a result, the number of students getting four or even all five offers from their five UCAS applications has gone up and up. When I’m sending my UCAS research spreadsheets to students I work with, I include ‘percentage of applicants who got offers’ as a column: it’s not unusual to see 100% for many courses at highly-ranked universities.

In the midst of this, schools have been congratulating themselves: you can go on any UK private school website and find news stories or content about how well their students do in getting so many offers to ‘top universities’.

Well, all this is about to change.

The UK school system is currently struggling with a funding issue. The government says that they are spending more and more money, and yet teachers and heads are complaining. Why? Because yes, there is more money, but there are so many more students than there have been for many years. And soon, these students will be applying to university.

Wonkhe (the go-to place for UK university policy information), published this article yesterday:

Here’s the key takeaway:

Between 2020 and 2030 the population increases by 27 per cent. This trajectory equates to almost a million extra 18 year-olds over the decade.

So slowly and steadily, we are going to see more and more students competing for places at university. A student who, if applying now, might have got into one university, might find that if they were applying for 2023 entry that they’d be denied, because the competition will be tougher.

For schools and counselors, you’re going to need to rethink some of the advising paradigm. Because of demographics, what used to be a realistic candidate for one university may not be so for much longer.