Living costs, apprenticeships stall UK student demand – UCAS

The cost of living crisis and lack of suitable student accommodation, coupled with the growing appeal of apprenticeships, have stalled the upward demand among UK 18-year-old applications for undergraduate courses at British universities – but competition for the most popular courses at high tariff universities is expected to be fiercer than ever with the return of exam grades for A-levels.

With the clock ticking down to A-level results day on Thursday (17 August) and the London-based national media running increasingly alarming stories suggesting that home students may lose out to foreign students when the confirmation and clearing season opens this week, Clare Marchant, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), sought to calm nerves.

She told a webinar hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) on Monday (14 August) that while there were some unknowns attached to the so-called return to a ‘new normal’, with exam grades replacing the teacher assessments that saw A-level grades inflated during the COVID-19 pandemic, other factors gave her confidence that this year’s recruitment would be smoother than many fear.

Will UK students get pushed out in clearing?

Marchant used the webinar to dismiss press speculation that international students would push UK students out of the race for available spots at UK universities once the clearing process opens. Clearing matches available students to available places once the A-level results have been publicly declared.

However, not all experts are so sure, with Mark Corver, founder and managing director of dataHE and a former head of analysis and research with UCAS, saying he was not so worried about the national downward shift in grades to bring them back to pre-pandemic levels as the devaluation in the relative value of the GBP9,250 (US$11,700) home tuition fee, which could make it more attractive for universities to fill vacancies with foreign students who can be charged twice or three times as much.

Marchant told the webinar that UCAS was confident that the vast majority of British applicants would be accepted onto their first-choice degree courses at their favoured universities. She added that universities and colleges have known about the impending return to pre-pandemic A-level grades since the end of last year and had adjusted their offers accordingly to ensure they filled places with suitable home candidates.

Despite a slight fall in UK 18-year-old applicants by the end of the main application period on 30 June – from 326,190 in 2022 to 319,570 in 2023 – Marchant predicted the number of UK undergraduates recruited would be about on a par with last year. She said that universities across the sector, including the higher-tariff group, had been making slightly more conditional offers this year ahead of clearing.

“76% of students have at least one offer, so that’s quite good news going into Thursday,” she said.

Impact of cost-of-living crisis

What is very different this year is student expectations once they reach university, stressed Marchant, with the cost-of-living crisis uppermost in students’ minds and almost two-thirds expecting to have to take a part-time job alongside their studies. “That’s very different to what it was like when I was a student,” said Marchant.

Surveys of people using UCAS digital portals showed that applicants were more concerned about the cost and location of available student accommodation and the cost of transport and course materials, rather than the lengthening of the repayment period for (home) student loans, from 30 to 40 years from this year – a factor that worries many higher education stakeholders.

StuRents, the UK’s leading student accommodation search, property management and data platform, estimates that across 18 university towns and cities which are home to Russell Group institutions, there is a shortfall of around 240,000 students rooms.

“This is up from a shortage of around 5,000 rooms across the same towns and cities five years ago, as the supply of housing has failed to keep up with rising numbers of students,” said a post from StuRents on LinkedIn.

More interest in apprenticeships

Marchant told the HEPI webinar there was also more interest this year in degree apprenticeships as an alternative to traditional three or four-year full-time undergraduate degrees.

Apprenticeships give students the chance to earn a living while training for a job and are a favourite subject for Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan and Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education Robert Halfon.

Keegan, as she likes to remind everyone, did an ‘earn-and-learn’ apprenticeship with General Motors before gaining a degree through Liverpool John Moores University.

Marchant said the surge in interest following the higher profile afforded to apprenticeships as an alternative to a traditional campus-based degree, particularly by government ministers, had led to a 37% increase in interest compared to last year, but more employers, including small and medium-sized businesses, need to offer them.

There are not enough apprenticeships to meet demand, particularly the higher-level ones involving universities and colleges, said Marchant.

They are also difficult to find, with students having to navigate multiple websites to find multiple employers offering them.

She told University World News: “UCAS strongly believes that apprenticeships are an important part of the choices on offer to students as they research and decide on their next steps.

“Up to 1.5 million students every year already access the UCAS hub and over 40% of these are interested in apprenticeships.

“There is a huge talent pool for employers to enhance their workforce and find the best applicants.”

To help deliver “parity between apprenticeships and undergraduate routes”, UCAS has updated its hub to show both sets of opportunities, she said.

Are foreign students pushing out Brits?

On the thorny question of whether foreign students will push out British students in the race for available places during clearing, Marchant said it was the postgraduate market that had seen the real surge in international students coming to the UK to study, particularly for masters degrees.

However, University World News reported recently on the tilt towards foreign students, particularly in the Russell Group of research-intensive universities which can charge three or four times as much to foreign students on their most popular undergraduate courses.

Looking on the bright side, Marchant said UCAS data showed there would be 28,000 courses offering places during clearing, only slightly down on this point last year.

She accepted that some university courses were only open to higher-fee-paying foreign students but added: “This is broadly consistent with previous years. Different courses will have different numbers of places available on them and the proof will be in the pudding come Thursday afternoon when courses are taken out of clearing as they fill up.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.