The good news on university applications in 5 graphs

by Stephen Tall on July 24, 2013

While the attention of the world’s media was focused on an 8lb 6oz bundle of Royal joy, there was perhaps even more significant good news about young people that didn’t garner quite so much coverage: demand for higher education from young people is at or near record levels for each country of the UK in 2013. This was announced by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) yesterday, an analysis of patterns of demand from over 20 million applications for higher education from 2004 to 2013 — if ever there were a day to bury good news…

Here are five graphs which tell the story…

Demand for higher education from young people is at or near record levels for each country of the UK in 2013.

ucas figures - application figs 2013

Application rates for English 18 year olds have increased by one percentage point to 35 per cent in 2013. This increase is typical of the trend between 2006 and 2011 and takes the application rate back to the 2011 level, after its decrease in 2012. Application rates for 18 year olds in Northern Ireland have increased to 48 per cent, application rates in Scotland (32 per cent) and Wales (30 per cent) are similar to the 2012 cycle.

Application rates for young, disadvantaged groups have increased to new highs in England.

The March deadline data confirms that 18 year old application rates of people from disadvantaged groups in England increased in 2013 to reach their highest recorded values. This is the case whether disadvantage is defined by area-based measures of higher education entry or by individual-level measures of low income. These increases in 2013 continue a pattern of substantial increases (over 70 per cent proportionally) over the past 10 cycles that is reducing the differences in application rates between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. In 2004 demand from 18 year olds in advantaged areas was 4.3 times greater than in disadvantaged areas. This has fallen to 2.7 times in 2013.

There are two ways of measuring economic disadvantage. Here’s one graph using the POLAR classification which divides small areas across the UK into five groups according to their level of young participation (entry into higher education at age 18 or 19) in higher education, a direct measure of advantage and disadvantage in terms of access to higher education.

ucas figures - application figs by disadv 2013

In 2013, 18 year olds living in the most advantaged areas are 2.7 times more likely to apply for higher education than those living in the most disadvantaged areas. This is substantially less of a differential than in 2004, when 18 year olds living in the most advantaged areas were 4.3 times more likely to apply for higher education than those living in the most disadvantaged areas. This reduction is a result of the relatively larger growth in demand from disadvantaged areas over this period.

The problem with the POLAR measurement is that areas change over time, with some previously low-income areas becoming gentrified or vice versa; yet changing the classification to reflect this doesn’t then allow for direct comparison over time.

An alternative way to try and measure disadvantage is to look at how many pupils who receive for free school meals (broadly speaking those from households with less than than £16,000 annual income) apply to university. UCAS has matched data from the Department for Education’s National Pupil Database to the UCAS applications data to find out the application rates from young people in receipt of free school meals when they were aged 15:

ucas figures - application figs by FSM 2013

The application rate for 18 year olds in 2013 who were previously in receipt of free school meals is 15 per cent compared with 33 per cent for those not in receipt of free school meals. Pupils who had not been receipt of free school meals were more than twice as likely to apply to higher education in 2013 than those who had been in receipt of free school meals. In 2012, when the higher and more variable fees were introduced, the application rate of those not in receipt of free school meals fell by 1.5 percentage points (4.7 per cent proportionally). In comparison, the application rate of those in receipt of free school meals fell by 0.1 percentage points (0.8 per cent proportionally). In 2013, the application rates increase for both groups by around 3.5 per cent proportionally (and the application rate for those in receipt of free school meals reached a new recorded high). This is an increase typical of the period for those not in receipt of free school meals but lower than the annual increases typical before 2012 for those in receipt of free school meals.

There has been a large (70%) proportional increase in the application rate from pupils in the Black ethnic group since 2006.

ucas figures - application figs by ethnicity 2013

Across the period the Chinese ethnic group have consistently higher application rates, more than 50 per cent on this measure, compared with the other groups. The Asian ethnic group have an application rate of around 40 per cent on this measure in 2013. The Black, Mixed, White and Other ethnic groups have application rates in a relatively narrow range in 2013 between 29 per cent (White) and 34 per cent (Black). The largest increase in application rates across the period, and the largest increase in 2013, is observed for the Black ethnic group, for these pupils the application rate has increased from 20 per cent in 2006 to 34 per cent in 2013 (a 70 per cent proportional increase).

Whilst relative demand is highest from pupils in London and lowest in the North East, patterns are changing over time with demand growing fastest amongst pupils in the North West.

ucas figures - application figs by region 2013

In all regions the application rate has increased since 2004 and, in general, each region reflects the national trend of increases or decreases. For instance the application rate in all regions falls in 2012 and increases in 2013. The highest application rate in each year in the period is from London (42 per cent in 2013), and the lowest application rate each year is from the North East (31 per cent in 2013). The greatest proportional increase in the application rate over the period is from the North West region (38 per cent proportional increase: from 26 per cent in 2004 to 35 per cent 2013) and the smallest proportional increase is from the South West region (14 per cent proportional increase: from 28 per cent in 2004 to 31 per cent in 2013).

My 3 conclusions from these 5 graphs…

1. The introduction of variable tuition fees in 2012 triggered a small, but noticeable dip in applications to university. However, this appears to be a one-year only dip: the 2013 increase in applications is typical of the trend between 2006 and 2011.

2. There is no evidence — despite the fear-mongering of many people — that young people from low-income backgrounds have been disproportionately deterred from applying to university as a result of the increase in fees in England. Indeed, what evidence there is so far shows that the gap in applications between the least advantaged and most advantaged young people is continuing to narrow, albeit very slowly.

3. It is still crucial that the facts about the new fees system are better known. It would be a tragedy if young people end up being deterred through unfounded fears they’ll have to pay university fees up-front, instead of paying them back gradually only once they are earning more than £21,000. A good place to check out the plain facts, devoid of all pro/anti political spin, is Martin Lewis’s MoneySavingExpert Student Loans Mythbusting page, or this YouTube video when he explains the changes to student finance:

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.