The number of students hoping to secure places at UK universities via clearing has fallen to a record low for recent years, leaving institutions that were seeking to top up recruitment during this period facing stiff competition.
Data from Ucas reveal that just 129,020 students who had applied for degree courses were without a confirmed place at the start of A-level results day, down 19,160 (12.9 per cent) year-on-year.
It is likely that the shift has been driven by universities making more offers earlier in the admissions cycle in a bid to secure students, in the knowledge that the total number of applications submitted had fallen by 4 per cent.
The least selective universities are likely to be hardest hit by the reduction in the number of students in clearing.
Already, at the start of A-level results day, low-tariff institutions reported that their acceptances were down 5.7 per cent compared with the same day last year.
Overall, 416,310 applicants were placed in universities and colleges as results were released, down 7,570 (1.8 per cent) year-on-year: the first decline since 2012. This was driven by a lower number of applications from mature students: in England, the number of over-25s accepted fell by 3,000 (9.7 per cent), with 2,010 20- to 24-year-olds winning places (down 4.6 per cent), and 3,140 fewer 19-year-olds getting in (down 4.9 per cent).
The number of European Union students being placed fell by 740 (2.8 per cent).
Mark Corver, director of analysis and research at Ucas, told Times Higher Education that the drop in the number of people without places was “striking”.
The trend is even more pronounced when applicants from England are considered, with an 18.5 per cent drop in the number of people without a place on A-level results day.
“It is an example of universities responding to the market conditions caused by fewer applicants by making more offers,” Dr Corver said. “This leaves the pool of people who could get a place in clearing noticeably smaller than in any recent cycle.”
The trend means that unplaced students are in a stronger position than usual when it comes to finding a place, and universities may find it more difficult to boost their intake as they vie for students during clearing.
The Ucas data show that middle-ranking universities were the only group to report an increase in acceptances year-on-year, by 0.9 per cent. The number of acceptances at the most selective universities was in essence unchanged compared with last year (down 0.1 per cent).
At the University of Bath, Mike Nicholson, director of student recruitment and admissions, said that the institution had “picked up a significant number of people” taking up insurance offers.
“Bath tends to be an insurance for the universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial in the sciences and maths, which would suggest that the universities right at the top end have had a particularly strong year,” he said.
A further 14,800 students were placed via clearing on the day after results were released, up 4.6 per cent year-on-year.
Ucas data show that the entry rate for students from the poorest background increased by only 0.4 percentage point over last year, representing a slowing of growth in this area. Between 2015 and 2016, this statistic went up by 1.1 percentage points.
If this pace of progress continues, it is unlikely that universities will meet government targets on broadening access to higher education for the poorest students by 2020, Dr Corver said.