University applications from white British students ‘lowest since 2008’

Ucas figures also show application gap between London and UK region with lowest rate has reached record level

February 21, 2024
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Source: iStock/Tero Vesalainen

The number of white British students applying to UK undergraduate courses has fallen to the lowest level in 16 years, figures show, with experts warning of “endemic challenges” to higher education access.

According to recent data from Ucas, 306,130 white UK applicants of all ages applied to courses by the equal consideration deadline at the end of January.

This was 3 per cent less than the year before, making white applicants the only ethnic group to shrink year-on-year.

It also means that applicant levels for white British students have fallen to their lowest level since 2008 – and are currently 22 per cent below 2010’s peak year, of 392,590 applicants.

Graeme Atherton, head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up (CEILUP) at the University of West London, said the data show that there are growing differences in which learners, from which backgrounds, enter higher education.

As the cost of attending university continues to rise and student support fails to keep up with inflation, the number of white applicants will continue to fall in the coming years, warned Professor Atherton.

In contrast to the declining numbers of white students, all other ethnic groups recorded an increase in demand in the past year – including 4 per cent more applicants of Asian ethnicity, 3 per cent more black applicants and 6 per cent rise for applicants of mixed ethnicity.

Camille Kandiko Howson, associate professor of education at the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London, said that white working-class young people were facing “endemic challenges” and that neither of the two main political parties had articulated a plan to reverse these trends.

Dr Howson said a strong push from the Office for Students around access and participation and the drive to recruit students from minoritised groups shifts focus elsewhere.

“While this positive, and successful, effort to increase diversity in higher education has supported ethnic diversity, it may also be distancing for white students from low-income families and those that are first in family to see higher education as a place for them,” she added.

Dr Howson said the issue was also a regional one, as rates of entry to higher education were much lower outside London.

Ucas data show that the capital was one of only two regions of the UK to register an increase in the 18-year-old application rate in the past year – alongside the West Midlands.

The gap between London, which has a 58.5 per cent application rate, and the UK region with the lowest rate (the north-east, 32.7 per cent), has reached another record level.

When it comes to increasing demand, Professor Atherton said that while universities should avoid targeting students on the basis of whiteness alone, a broader focus on students from lower socio-economic groups was certainly required.

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter, said there were growing concerns in the post-pandemic era that students from white working-class backgrounds were “bottom of the class” when it comes to entering higher education.

“Many of our least socially mobile areas in Britain – in coastal, rural and urban areas – are inhabited by white working‐class communities increasingly disenchanted with the school system, leading to poorer results,” he added.

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Reader's comments (2)

How about white applicants as a proportion of a changing British populations? Elementary arithmetic, any one?
I expect the percentages above have factored this in. Anyone can quite easily do this for themselves on accessible demographic data for the UK. The recent percentage drops in white applicants cannot be explained by increasing birth rates of other groups alone. A stats model aiming to account for the range of likely socioeconomic factors and variables would be most appropriate. I expect the academics cited above have had a crack at this already. The question remains what do we as a country/culture/society want from its education system.