Record rise in disadvantaged starting university

A larger proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds will start university this year, Ucas figures show

Tes Reporter

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Inequality in university admissions has shrunk during the coronavirus pandemic, according to new analysis published by Ucas.

The proportion of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds accepted into university has risen by 8 per cent on the previous year, with 28,030 students from this group accepted by universities this year.

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"This means 22.5 per cent of all young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are due to start an undergraduate degree," a statement from Ucas said.

The figures show a big jump since 2019, despite the numbers revealing a record 17.3 per cent of the least advantaged young people being accepted by universities, up 0.8 percentage points on the previous year. 

Ucas analysis also found that overall demand for higher education has increased during the pandemic, and that "there are currently a record 515,650 students with a confirmed place – up 4 per cent on last year".

"When looking at 18-year-olds specifically, 36.4 per cent of all young people (253,890 students) are due to start a course – a new high for this point in the year," Ucas said.

The report shows the number of students accepted on full-time undergraduate courses as of 10 September. In recent years, around 95 per cent of students have been placed by this point in the process.

This means a record number of students are due to start degree courses despite fears about high deferral rates during the pandemic.

The number of overseas students, from outside the EU, due to take up places has risen by 9 per cent to 44,300, despite concerns that travel restrictions would deter international students from studying in the UK.

But the number of EU students accepted has fallen by 2 per cent, with 29,630 confirmed, Ucas figures show.

The news comes as both Oxford and Cambridge universities have reported their largest proportion of state-educated new undergraduates on record this year.

It also comes after the government called on universities to prioritise students from disadvantaged backgrounds for admission “where possible” following the U-turn on A-level grades.

Institutions were urged to honour offers to students who met their conditions after Ofqual allowed results to be based on schools’ estimated grades, rather than its algorithm, four days after results day.

Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said: “Covid-19 has not dampened the appeal of UK higher education. Overall, the total number of accepted applicants is up 4 per cent, to a record 515,650, because of more home (also up 4 per cent) and international applicants with a confirmed place.

“The significant increase of more than 3,580 additional students from outside the EU accepted comes alongside a much smaller decline of 720 EU students from within the EU.

“Enrolment is currently taking place with universities and colleges implementing Covid safety measures, and many will cautiously be waiting to see the proportion of international students who take up their places this year.”

She added: “As students are starting their new courses across the country, these numbers confirm the enduring appeal and welcome of our outstanding universities and colleges.

“They, along with schools, Ucas and organisations across the entire education sector, have worked tirelessly in recent months to provide reassurance and flexibility to applicants, and ensure access to the best opportunities possible.”

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “It was always clear that domestic demand would be up, despite the reduction in 18-year olds, because the alternatives to more education are so poor this year."


Kevin Gilmartin, post-16 specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The UCAS data suggests that the number of young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds who are due to start university this year has risen. This is greatly welcomed and is a tribute to both the students themselves and to the school and college staff who managed to prepare them so well, despite all the numerous challenges this year.

“We are still concerned about the gap between the most disadvantaged students and their more advantaged peers, in terms of attending the higher tariff universities. A particular problem is the prolonged underfunding of post-16 education, and this must be addressed in the forthcoming government spending review.”

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