The number of people seeking places at UK universities by the main January deadline has fallen for a second consecutive year as a rebound in interest from the European Union and a rise in international demand failed to make up for a decline in applications from students in the UK.
The admissions service Ucas said that 559,030 candidates had submitted applications ahead of 15 January, down 5,160 (0.9 per cent) on the same point last year, driven by a 2.5 per cent drop in the size of the UK’s 18-year-old population and by shrinking demand from mature students.
The proportion of UK 18-year-olds applying to university has climbed to a record high, with 37.1 per cent of school-leavers hoping to enter higher education, compared with 36.8 per cent last year, but demographics meant that the total number of applications from this cohort fell by 4,260 (1.6 per cent).
Meanwhile, the number of applicants aged 19 and over contracted by 6,810 (2.8 per cent).
Applications from other EU nations rose by 3.4 per cent on the same point last year, equating to 1,440 more students, offering some hope to sector leaders who fear that Brexit will lead to a collapse in interest from the Continent. International applications from non-EU countries were up by 5,820 (11.1 per cent).
This year’s decline in applications follows a 5 per cent drop in applications at the same point last year, which was driven in part by a 7 per cent fall in interest from the EU.
The slide in the number of applications is likely to further increase competition among universities seeking to hit their recruitment targets.
Ucas’ January deadline data also reveal a 13 per cent drop in applications to nursing courses in England among all age groups, following a pattern of waning interest in healthcare courses since the scrapping of NHS bursaries and the move to standard £9,250 tuition fees at English universities and colleges last year.
There is evidence in the Ucas data of a widening gap between male and female applicants across all disciplines, with 18-year-old women now 36 per cent more likely to apply for higher education courses than their male peers. This equates to 36,000 “missing” male applicants who would be needed for gender parity.
The most advantaged students in terms of socio-economic background are still 2.3 times more likely to apply for university courses than those from the most socially disadvantaged group.
Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK, said that while the strong demand among 18-year-olds was “positive”, “the continuing drop in mature applicants must be addressed by government if we are going to meet future skills needs”.
The increase in international applications, Mr Jarvis added, showed that the UK “remains one of the most attractive destinations in the world for talented international students”.