Applicant gap between London and English regions becomes a gulf

UK’s capital becomes first area of country to see more than half of 18-year-olds applying to higher education

February 6, 2020

The gap between London and England’s regions for the share of young people applying to university has hit a record level with more than half of the capital’s 18-year-olds applying to higher education for the first time.

Although the share of school-leavers across the country who applied to university by the main January deadline is also at its highest level (39.5 per cent), it is now 52.6 per cent in London, more than 10 percentage points higher than any other English region.

Meanwhile, the latest applications data from the UK’s admissions body Ucas has also shown a drop of 2 per cent in applicants from the European Union.

According to the figures published on February 6, a total of 568,330 people applied by the 15 January deadline for an undergraduate course in the UK, an overall increase of 1.2 per cent on last year.

Despite 2020 being projected to be the final year of a UK-wide decline in the number of 18-year-olds in the total population, the number of young people applying still rose by almost 5,000.

But school-leavers in London are now 1.54 times more likely to apply to university through Ucas’ main scheme than those in the north-east, which has the lowest application rate.

In terms of the UK as a whole, only Northern Ireland has an application rate for 18-year-olds that is anywhere near London’s, with 47.9 per cent of its young people applying. In Wales, a demographic decline in the young population helped to increase the application rate for 18-year-olds to 32.7 per cent despite applicant numbers actually falling.

Scotland – which has a limit on the number of funded university places – was the only UK nation to see a fall in both young applicant numbers and the application rate, which is now 31.9 per cent. However, in its report Ucas points out that a third of full-time higher education in Scotland is not included in its figures.

Elsewhere, although international students do not always use Ucas to make a course application, there was a huge increase in undergraduate applicants from outside the EU, to 73,080, a rise of 14.7 per cent on last year.

This adds to “rapid growth” over the last three years, Ucas said, and there were 20,000 more non-EU applicants in 2020 than in 2017, a relative increase of 39 per cent.

The growth has been mainly driven by applications from China, India, and Hong Kong. For China and India, applicant numbers rose by around a third. Ucas pointed out that more applicants now apply from China than both Wales and Northern Ireland, although the share of Chinese applicants that gain a place tends to be much lower than for domestic students.

For EU applicant numbers, the 2 per cent fall (which represented 860 people) this year was the first drop in two years. Demand fell in the cycle immediately after the referendum in 2016, before picking up again in 2018 and 2019.

Applicants from within the EU this time around would have applied knowing that Brexit was effectively a certainty, although students starting courses this autumn will still have access to tuition fee loans. This status is unclear for 2021-22 entry.

In terms of other trends, there was a narrowing of the gap in application rates between advantaged and disadvantaged students to a record low, but the change was very slight. Those from the most advantaged areas were 2.24 times more likely to apply than those from the most disadvantaged districts, compared with a figure of 2.3 in 2019. The slow pace of change may still raise questions on the progress universities are making in attracting disadvantaged applicants.

And the pattern of heavy falls in applications for some humanities subjects has continued, with language and area studies seeing a drop of 7 per cent, and historical, philosophical, and religious studies falling 9 per cent.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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