In its End of Cycle report for 2014, Ucas says the number of students who secured places in UK universities broke through the 500,000 barrier for the first time in 2014, rising 3.4 per cent to 512,000.
This came after the number of offers made rose by 6 per cent to 1.8 million, the highest recorded total. Some 92 per cent of UK and European Union applicants that made five choices received at least one offer, and 32 per cent received the maximum five offers, a record high.
This means that, depending on their grade profiles, 18-year-olds are now between 30 and 80 per cent more likely to get five offers than five years ago.
At the same time, when it came to actual results, the proportion of English 18-year-old students entering “higher tariff” universities having achieved the equivalent of ABB or better at A level fell to 82 per cent in 2014, after a high point of 89 per cent in 2011.
Among students who got BBB, 35 per cent entered a higher tariff university in 2014, compared with 32 per cent the previous year, and 17 per cent in 2011.
Students who did better than expected remained ready to change their plans, with 5,600 applicants – 3 per cent of the total – registering on a different course from the place they had secured as a firm or alternative choice.
This is similar to 2013 and 2012, but higher than in 2011 and earlier cycles.
In the foreword to the report, Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of Ucas, says universities are “acutely conscious that their offers are increasingly having to compete against four others” and that the findings signalled the emergence of a “buyer’s market” for applicants.
She says students “could afford to be more ambitious in their choices”, perhaps applying for one or two courses with tougher entry requirements.
“Many learners are initially ruling themselves out of other courses, unaware of how successful their applications might have turned out to be,” she says.
However, the growing dominance of the market works both ways, the report says. While more than 70 per cent of offers were accepted after being picked as a firm choice by an applicant who then satisfied any conditions attached to it, the number of acceptances through the insurance route increased by 3,900, nearly 12 per cent, compared with 2013.
This indicates that institutions selected as firm choices are becoming more discerning about who they accept when applicants do not do as well as expected.
The report, Ms Curnock Cook says, “does indicate a return to focus on the quality of intake by some institutions who were more intent on maintaining or growing numbers in the previous two cycles”.
End of Cycle also says that entry rates among disadvantaged 18-year-olds hit a record high in 2014, increasing by 11 per cent compared with last year in England and Northern Ireland, 14 per cent in Scotland, and 22 per cent in Wales.
However, the bulk of widening participation happened at less selective universities. Students entering university in 2014 were 20 per cent more likely to hold BTECs, rather than A levels, compared with last year.
The report also says that the gap between male and female participation rates continued to widen to 8.2 per cent, the largest difference recorded. Women aged 18 are now 32 per cent more likely to enter higher education than men, and this widens to 50 per cent in the most disadvantaged areas.