The number of applicants looking to study for an undergraduate degree at a UK university was down 2 per cent at the final June deadline for applications, latest data show.
The year-on-year drop is larger than the 0.9 per cent fall recorded for those applying by the main January deadline, according to statistics from Ucas, the UK admissions service.
Much of the decline is driven by the shrinking of the 18-year-old population, which has decreased by 2.3 per cent in England. However, Ucas pointed out that a record 38.1 per cent of that population applied, a 0.2 percentage point increase.
Another key factor in the overall drop in the number of applicants has been the continued fall in demand for university courses from mature students.
For instance, the number of applicants aged 25 and over from England fell 8 per cent to 45,730. A big factor in the trend for falling numbers of mature applicants has been the drop in demand for nursing courses, attributed to government cuts to NHS bursaries. Applicants to nursing were 12 per cent lower at the June deadline compared with last year.
Across all ages, a total of 511,460 UK applicants submitted an application by 30 June, the final deadline for applying to up to five universities or colleges simultaneously.
This was a 3 per cent decline on the same point last year, with 421,610 applicants from England (down 4 per cent), 19,310 applicants from Northern Ireland (down 5 per cent), and 21,830 applicants from Wales (down 3 per cent). Only in Scotland did applicant numbers remain more stable, with a fall of less than 1 per cent to 48,710.
The overall fall in applicants was modestly counteracted by a bounce back in those applying from other European Union countries, which rose 2 per cent to 50,130, after falling back the year before.
However, this rise is lower than the figure for those who applied by the January deadline: at that point, EU applicant numbers were up 3.4 per cent year-on-year.
Meanwhile, Ucas said that there was a record number of students using its service from outside the EU – 75,380 applicants applied by the June deadline, an increase of 6 per cent.
Clare Marchant, Ucas chief executive, said that “the significant increases in applications from EU and international students demonstrate the continuing popularity of UK higher education”, while universities minister Sam Gyimah said that it was “fantastic to see a record level of 18-year-olds at home and record numbers of international students…choosing the UK as a place to study”.
But Greg Walker, chief executive of the MillionPlus group of modern universities, said that the “modest recovery in applications from EU students appears to show that the uncertainty created by the Brexit vote has a fluctuating impact on applications”.
The figures on mature students, which he said meant that the overall drop over five years in applicants aged over 25 was almost a quarter, “highlight again the need for urgent steps to better support people into higher education regardless of their age”.