Highly selective universities lowered their entry standards to expand at the expense of less prestigious providers following the lifting of student number controls in England, according to Ucas analysis.
The admissions service’s end of cycle report says that 532,300 applicants were placed in UK higher education in 2015, a record high and up 3.1 per cent year-on-year. Newly uncapped English universities were responsible for the bulk of this growth, increasing recruitment by 16,800, or 3.9 per cent, compared with 2014.
However, different types of universities experienced very different levels of growth. Providers with high entry requirements, typically Russell Group or other highly selective institutions, increased their UK-wide intake by 9,500 (7 per cent) to a record high of 145,300, Ucas says.
In contrast, lower tariff providers expanded by only 1,500 (0.7 per cent) compared with 2014. Medium tariff institutions grew by 8,900, or 5.7 per cent.
The Ucas report reveals that highly selective universities across the UK lowered their entry requirements as they expanded, with only 74.1 per cent of their entrants holding A levels at grades ABB or above in 2015. This was down 3.3 per cent year-on-year, and has dropped 11.3 per cent since 2011.
In 2015, 39 per cent of students with a typical grade profile of BBB got into a highly selective university, compared with only 17 per cent four years previously.
With recruitment becoming more competitive than ever before, 93 per cent of all applicants received at least one offer, and 56 per cent got four or five: a record high. Nearly one in three applicants (32 per cent) received a full set of five offers.
There was also a 93 per cent increase in the number of unconditional offers made to 18-year-olds in England, Northern and Wales, up from 12,100 to 23,400 in the space of a year. They now account for 2.5 per cent of all offers, and around one in 12 applicants now receive at least one unconditional offer.
And a record number of students, 64,300, were placed through clearing, up 5 per cent on last year.
In the report’s foreword, Mary Curnock Cook, Ucas’s chief executive, says that students had more opportunity to get into a highly selective university than ever before.
“As the more competitive recruitment environment evolves, the majority of applicants are enjoying record offer rates and higher acceptance rates,” Ms Curnock Cook writes. “The high number of students receiving a full set of five offers suggests that potential applicants for 2017 could afford to be even more ambitious in at least some of their applications.”
The end of cycle report reveals that the gap in access rates by gender has continued to widen across the UK, with 18-year-old women being 35 per cent more likely to enter higher education than their male classmates, a record high. This means that 36,000 fewer male school leavers entered higher education in 2015 than would have been the case if the entry rate was equal.
In the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, female school leavers were 52 per cent more likely to enter than men.
Ms Curnock Cook describes the gap as “unacceptably large and widening”, and said that the underperformance of white men was a particular concern.
White students of all genders remained least likely to enrol in higher education, with an entry rate among 18-year-old state school leavers of 28 per cent in 2015, falling further behind students from other backgrounds, including applicants from Asian and Chinese backgrounds (41 per cent and 58 per cent respectively).
“Our new results…[show] young men, and especially young white men, falling even further behind,” Ms Curnock Cook writes. “We draw attention to this again this year because our new measures are signalling that the widening gap between men and women is acting to stall progress in reducing inequality overall.”
While the entry rate for English 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds rose to 18.5 per cent in 2015, the annual increase, of 0.7 percentage points, was lower than in recent cycles. The most advantaged students remain two-and-half times more likely to enrol in university in England and, when Ucas considered multiple measures of deprivation, the access gap between richest and poorest remained unchanged year-on-year.
There were also significant differences in participation by region, with young people from London being 40 per cent more likely to enter higher education than those from the South West and North East in 2015.