Increase in Higher Education Statistics Hits New Records

There has been a notable increase in headline student numbers in recent years, reaching new record levels after a brief dip linked to the 2012 reforms in the higher education sector. The increase is observed across various student demographics, including those from disadvantaged areas, where entry rates have also achieved unusual levels.


However, it's essential to note that the emphasis on headline numbers mostly revolves around full-time undergraduates. Ongoing concerns persist regarding student numbers beyond this category. This is with less favourable trends noted among part-time undergraduates, especially those not pursuing first degrees, some postgraduate students, EU students, mature students, and specific disadvantaged groups.


The coronavirus pandemic has affected several students, particularly those from abroad, which has caused the academic community to express grave concerns.

Key data on the overall student population

The following data pertains to the student body as a whole:


1. Record enrollment in UK higher education (2021/22)

The academic year 2021–22 saw a significant enrollment of 2.86 million students in UK higher education institutions, reflecting the nation's commitment to fostering academic excellence and diversity. This outstanding number highlights the UK's reputation as a top choice for students looking for a high-quality education.


2. Full-time students' pursuits

The majority of full-time students are pursuing first degrees, while a noticeable observation is the higher proportion of overseas students engaging in postgraduate courses. This is indicative of the global appeal and academic excellence present in the UK's higher education offerings.


3. Decline in 'other undergraduate' courses (Past Decade)

Notably, ‘other undergraduate’ courses have witnessed a nearly two-thirds decline in entrants over the past decade. These courses primarily cater to part-time UK students. This decline shows the evolving preferences and challenges in the landscape of higher education enrollment.


4. A shift in part-time entrants (2008/9-2020/21)

Examining the trends over a decade, total part-time entrants experienced a 40% decline from 2008/9 to 2020/21. Part-time students enrolled in "other undergraduate" courses decreased by 73%, first-degree students by 12%, and postgraduate research students by 8%. On the other hand, the number of part-time students enrolling in postgraduate courses has increased by only 3% throughout this period.


Trends in applicants and entrants to full-time undergraduate courses over the past decade

Here are some trends in applications and entrants to full-time undergraduate courses during the last decade:


1. Impactful shifts in full-time undergraduate applications (2012)

In 2012, applicant numbers experienced a significant decline, particularly among those facing fees of up to £9,000, resulting in a 7.6% overall decrease. The structure of the development of student applications experienced a change during this crucial year.


2. A rebound in 2013

Nonetheless, there was a rise in 2013, as a record number of applications were approved, setting new records for approval each of the next three years.


3. Record highs and concerns (2020–2022)

Applicant numbers soared to new record highs in 2020, 2021, and 2022. Due to travel restrictions and the difficulties posed by coronavirus limitations on teaching methods, there were worries about a potential decline in student numbers in 2023.


4. 2023 applications and acceptances (UCAS)

In 2023, there were 757,000 applications for full-time undergraduate places through UCAS, marking a slight decrease of almost 10,000 compared to the record level in 2022. Of these applicants, just over 550,000 were accepted.



The admissions and applicant patterns since 2020

Since 2020, the following trends in admissions and applicants have been observed:


1. Rising trends in home student applications (2020-2021)

Applications from home students showed a rising trend, with a 2.1% increase in 2020 and a 5.1% increase in 2021. The increase in this number can be linked to the growing population of 18-year-olds and higher application rates among this particular age group.


2. Brexit impact on EU students applications (2021-2023)

Brexit had a lasting effect in 2021, as newly admitted EU students had to face the challenges of increased tuition and lost their eligibility for fee loans. As a result, in 2021, applications from EU students increased by a significant 40%. But the effects were felt in the years that followed, as the number of EU students enrolled in full-time undergraduate programmes fell by an incredible 67% between 2020 and 2023, to the lowest level since 1994."


3. Non-EU overseas applicants amidst Covid-19 concerns (2019–2022)

Despite concerns over COVID-19, the number of non-EU overseas applicants reached record levels each year from 2019 to 2022.


4. Fluctuations in UCAS acceptances (2020-2023)

The total number of accepted applicants through UCAS witnessed a 5.4% increase in 2020, setting a new record high. However, there was an 8,400, or 1.5%, decrease in 2021, mostly due to a 50% drop in approved EU applications. Acceptances from home applicants increased by 1.4%, and those from other overseas applicants rose by 2.4%.


5. A slight uptick in acceptance amidst challenges (2022)

Acceptances showed a slight increase of 0.2% in 2022. Despite a continuous reduction in EU students and older home students, there was a rise in 18-year-olds from the United Kingdom and non-EU immigrants.


6. The decline in acceptances hits a low point (2023)

In 2023, acceptances fell by 1.5%, reaching their lowest level since before the pandemic. There was no increase in non-EU students to offset the decline in home and EU students.


7. Fluctuating trends in UK 18-year-old entry rate (2006–2023)

The higher education admission rate among UK 18-year-olds rose from 24.7% in 2006 to 30.7% in 2015, resulting in 38.2% in 2021. However, it will fall to 35.8% in 2023.


Source: House of Commons Library

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