Record numbers of students from poor families are going to university as 2013-14 undergraduate enrolment bounced back from last year’s slump to reach an all-time high.
But while ministers welcomed the news that university acceptances had recovered after falling sharply when £9,000 tuition fees were introduced, concerns are likely to be raised over the lower entry grades being demanded across the sector.
According to Ucas’ End of Cycle Report, published on 19 December, a record 495,600 full-time undergraduates were accepted into higher education in its 2013-14 admissions cycle – exceeding the previous high of 492,030 in 2011-12.
David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said the sector’s performance was “very good news” and a “vindication of our reforms”.
He added: “If you compare the evidence in these figures with the scares and warnings when we introduced the new system – that kids would be put off applying to university, especially from poorer backgrounds – this shows that, thank heavens, those fears were misplaced.”
However, Mr Willetts warned that there may be “years of famine” ahead owing to the declining number of young Britons.
This year, with UK higher education institutions making 1.7 million offers – 9 per cent more than in 2012-13 – acceptances rose to either record or near-record levels in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In England, acceptances went up 7.3 per cent to a record 367,900, while a 3.4 per cent increase in the enrolment of 18-year-olds means that 40 per cent of young people in England now attend higher education by the age of 19.
Entry rates for students from poorer areas have also improved.
Mary Curnock Cook, Ucas’ chief executive, welcomed a “further reduction in the gap between rich and poor”.
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said the data show “that the work that universities are doing to widen participation is making a difference”, although there was still more to be done.
In 2013-14, 18-year-olds in England’s most disadvantaged areas were 12 per cent more likely to enter higher education than in 2011-12 (before the introduction of higher tuition fees), with almost 17 per cent of them finding places.
The sector’s record haul of students has been drawn from a smaller pool of applicants (677,400) than in 2011-12 (then, some 700,000 people applied via Ucas), a major reason for offer and acceptance rates soaring this year.
Only 35,000 people who made five choices on their Ucas forms this year were left without offers, with nine out of 10 applicants receiving at least one.
About a third received offers to all five of their choices.
Entry hurdles lowered
But with so few applicants failing to make the grade, questions are likely to be raised over the entry levels set by some universities, particularly traditionally elite institutions.
For instance, 66 per cent of applicants scoring BBB or lower at A level were offered places at institutions with historically high tariff scores this year, up by 9 percentage points on last year.
Overall, students predicted BBB were 23 per cent more likely to receive offers from all five of their university choices in 2013-14. Those predicted BBC grades were 20 per cent more likely.
According to Ucas, the proportion of English 18-year-olds enrolling at higher tariff institutions with grades of BBB or less increased to 17 per cent – 70 per cent higher than two years ago.
But Mr Willetts defended the admittance of students with lower grades, saying that institutions have “got pretty close to saturation of people with AAA or ABB”.
He added: “I don’t think we should second-guess them…we have to accept that universities are able to make that judgement themselves.”
Also, despite record recruitment overall, not all institutions have recouped the student numbers lost last year, Ucas says.
While higher tariff institutions expanded by 10 per cent this year, taking on another 10,000 students, about 20 per cent of universities that suffered falling recruitment in 2012-13 experienced a second year of declining student numbers, the report says. Those that expanded in 2012-13 have generally gone on to recruit more, with 39 per cent of institutions recording year-on-year gains between 2011-12 and 2013-14, it adds.