Reaction: UK higher education sector responds to Ucas application figures

Key figures from the sector have their say on ‘worrying’ figures

February 2, 2017
Students sitting examination
Source: iStock

Coverage as the UK higher education sector responds to the Ucas January deadline statistics report, which shows a 5 per cent decline in applications overall on the same point last year, and a 7 per cent decline in applications from the European Union.

The statistics show that to date a total of 564,190 people have applied for full-time undergraduate study at UK universities and higher education institutions for 2017, a fall of 5 per cent compared with the same point last year.

Read our in-depth coverage of the report's findings


Response from the sector

Jo Johnson, universities minister:

“More young people than ever are choosing to go to university, with record application rates for 18-year-olds this year as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The reforms we are bringing in through the Higher Education and Research Bill will mean people choosing to go to university in the future will benefit from more choice and universities will have a duty to do more to promote equal opportunities.

“This government is committed to supporting all young people to reach their full potential – whether that is going to university, starting an apprenticeship or taking up a technical qualification.”


Pam Tatlow, chief executive of MillionPlus: 

“While it is encouraging to see that applications from 18-year-olds remain relatively high, it is clear that a number of factors are affecting what would otherwise be a positive story in terms of increasing numbers of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the continuing decline among older applicants will dent the government’s ambitions for social mobility and the 23 per cent downturn in applications for nursing following the abolition of NHS bursaries should send a warning sign that their replacement with student loans may not be as attractive to the students who have often started these courses later in life.

“The 7 per cent drop in applications from within the EU will worry universities and should convince the government that there is an urgent need to be much clearer about its Brexit priorities for the higher education sector and that a commitment to provide EU students commencing courses at UK universities in 2018-19 and 2019-20 with access to student loans funding is much needed and long overdue.”


Michael Peak, senior education adviser, British Council:

“It’s a concern that international applications to UK universities are showing a decline at a time when most other countries are benefiting from opening up to global talent. The reduction in EU applicants bears out recent British Council research that showed that 30 per cent of young people in the European Union aged 18 to 34 were less likely to study in the UK following the referendum vote.   

“The UK is home to a diverse range of world-leading, international universities that attract knowledge and talent to support students, businesses and our international reputation. We need to continue to work hard with policymakers and university leaders to ensure that UK education remains an attractive choice.”


Sorana Vieru, National Union of Students, vice-president higher education:

“That applications for Higher Education are down by 5 per cent for UK students is disappointing, but not a surprise. Uncertainty around increases in tuition fees, loss of maintence grants and the rising costs of living and studying at university are too much of a risk to some potential students.

“The 7 per cent decline in applications of students from the EU after the referendum result should be seen as a warning that studying in the UK is a considerably less attractive option than it was 12 months ago. It is unacceptable for Theresa May to use EU students as bargaining chips in the Brexit negotiations. To help reverse this worrying decline, she must take international students out of net migration figures.

“It is encouraging to hear that level of widening participation undergraduate applications has increased – education is a crucial lifeline for many people from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, barriers to education do not stop at the campus edge. Students still face many challenges once they start their course. The new teaching excellence framework, directly linked to raising tuition fees, will only make these worse for students from poorer backgrounds.”

Read our in-depth coverage of the Ucas figures


Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union

 “This drop in EU students strongly suggests that Brexit is damaging our universities’ recruitment. Students from the EU need clarity and guarantees on costs and funding stretching into the future or naturally they will think twice about coming to study here. EU students have contributed to our universities’ success and deserve better than to be used as pawns in negotiations about Britain’s future.

“Such a drastic slump in applications to nursing courses shows the damage removing vital support for students does. When the NHS is in crisis, we have a government pursuing policies that are going to lead to fewer nursing graduates. The government must now accept its changes have had the opposite affect that it promised, led to a decrease in applications and bring back the support students need.”


Dame Julia Goodfellow​, president of Universities UK and vice-chancellor of the University of Kent:

“There seem to be a number of factors behind this decline in applicant figures. This includes the possible impact of the Brexit vote on EU applicants and changes to the way that degrees in nursing, midwifery and some other allied health professions in England are funded. While the drop is not catastrophic, particularly given last year’s record high, there is a need to address some issues urgently.

“The drop in EU applicants highlights the need to ensure that, following the vote to leave the EU, prospective European applicants are made fully aware of the fees and financial support arrangements well in advance of next year’s cycle.

“The Ucas process for accepting applications for 2017 opened on 6 September last year, but the government guarantee on fees and financial support for EU students was not provided until 11 October 2016, only days before the first deadline in October. To avoid future uncertainty, we need the government to extend these transitional arrangements now for EU students considering applying for courses starting in 2018. Prospective European students will already be starting to consider whether to apply to study at British universities next year.

“It is important also that we make clear that European students continue to be welcome at UK universities and that their contribution to academic life is invaluable. More than 125,000 EU students are currently studying at universities across the UK, and they make an important cultural and academic contribution to campus life.

“Given the strong demand, there is a big opportunity to attract more students to study in the UK. We need the government to take action to make the UK an even more attractive destination for qualified students and talented university staff from around the world.

“Given that 18- and 19-year-olds make up about 70 per cent of all UK applicants to universities, the decline in this population group means an inevitable impact on applicant numbers. The rate of applications from this age group, however, remains strong, highlighting continued demand for university courses.

“Changes this year to the way that degrees in nursing, midwifery and some other allied health profession course in England are funded means that an initial drop in applicant numbers had been expected. While demand for places on these courses remains strong, we must monitor the situation over the next year. Graduates in these skilled professions are in demand, and they make an enormous contribution to our health and care services.

“The number of mature applicants is likely to have been affected by the rising number of people who have now already gained degrees while younger, as well increased employment and other training routes.

It is important, however, that everyone with the potential and desire to go to university is able to do so. The benefits of getting a degree remain clear. Official data show that skilled graduates are still in a substantially better position to obtain a job and, on average, earn substantially more than non-graduates over a working lifetime.”


Paul Feldman, chief executive of Jisc: 

“This is the latest indicator that the UK’s decision to leave the European Union is already having an impact on the higher education sector, and given current visa restrictions, it’s a worrying time for UK universities. 

“Against this backdrop, it’s imperative that borderless education becomes the new norm. We cannot allow current restrictions and political decisions to blight the reputation and success of the UK higher education system. All over the world, technology enables communication to continue despite geographical barriers. Once upon a time, presenting a Mooc in the UK virtually to students in China would have seemed revolutionary – and now this is common place. If UK universities are to remain competitive, utilising technology to enable cross-border learning will be crucial. 

“As a minimum, all UK universities should be reviewing and building upon their existing transnational education strategies - whether that’s identifying the countries that would benefit most from their expertise, or agreeing the balance of physical courses versus distance courses available. We must urge all universities to experiment and explore the opportunities that available technology affords them.”


Maddalaine Ansell, University Alliance chief executive: 

“While it is positive to see a continued rise in application rates from disadvantaged students, this release highlights a number of areas of concern. Universities play a crucial role in training the health workforce of the future, and the stark fall in numbers applying to study nursing – following changes announced in the 2015 spending review – will raise questions about whether we are training all the nurses we need. This needs to be monitored very carefully.

“We’ve also seen significant falls in the number of EU applicants, underlining the need for certainty for EU students as Britain withdraws from the European Union. EU students make a huge contribution to the vibrancy of our academic communities and provide UK students with the opportunity to study alongside people from other cultures. This helps to build social capital and employability skills.

“The government’s industrial strategy rightly emphasises the importance of opportunities for those already in the workforce to retrain and upskill throughout their career. The drop in mature students illustrates the scale of the challenge in delivering this – later this month, University Alliance will be publishing new proposals to support lifelong learning.”


Les Ebdon, director of fair access to higher education: 

“These initial figures show that the rate of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas applying to higher education is higher than ever before. This is part of a sustained upwards trend over more than a decade. While there is still much to do to increase participation from people from disadvantaged backgrounds, this continuing progress is cause for real optimism.

“Universities and colleges recognise the pivotal role that they have to play in improving access to higher education for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The outreach work that they carry out to help raise aspirations – and the partnerships they have fostered with schools to help lift attainment – have made a profound and positive difference.

“However, I am concerned about the decline in applications from mature students, and the particularly significant reduction in people applying to nursing courses. We have previously seen a fall in applications when tuition fee and support changes have been implemented. While today’s figures are a significant cause for concern, in previous cycles – for example following the changes in 2012 – numbers have rapidly recovered. I will be closely watching how these application figures ultimately impact on the number of mature students entering higher education.

“It is important that universities and colleges do all they can to support mature students. Not everybody wants to, or is able to, enter higher education straight after school, and it is crucial that a university’s doors remain open for older students. Higher education is a life-changing opportunity and should be available to all with the talent to benefit from it, at whatever stage of their life they come to it.”


Dame Jessica Corner, Chair of the Council of Deans of Health:
(The reduction in application numbers for 2017-18 is higher across healthcare courses, where applicants from England making at least one choice to nursing and midwifery have fallen by 23 per cent.)

“It is to be expected that there would be fewer applications in the first year following the changes to the funding system, but we would expect this to pick up in future years. This also comes in the context of a reduction in applications to higher education across all subjects and the introduction of alternative routes into health careers such as the nursing associate and registered nurse apprenticeship programmes. 

“Our members report receiving a high number of good quality applications for most courses, and they will continue to recruit through to the summer. Where courses have historically had a large number of applicants, fewer applicants might well not affect eventual student numbers.”

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