The number of British school leavers applying to start degree courses this autumn has surged to a record high despite uncertainty amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Ucas figures suggest.
A record 40.5% of all UK 18-year-olds have applied to university – the first time more than two out of five have applied by this point in the application cycle, according to the university admissions service.
The latest Ucas figures – which look at all applications made by June 30 – suggest that 281,980 school leavers have applied, up from 275,520 last year, despite there being fewer 18-year-olds in the population.
It comes amid fears that applicants would be deterred from studying at British universities this year after institutions have moved towards a mix of online and face-to-face classes during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Some universities are considering making students live in a “bubble” with people on the same courses to limit social mixing, while other institutions are looking to hold virtual freshers’ week events.
The latest figures show that the number of new nursing applicants between January and June was 63% higher than the same period last year – from 7,880 in 2019 to 12,840 this year.
The data also reveals that more than a quarter (25.4%) of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds across the UK have applied to university or college by the June 30 deadline.
Figures show that the number of applicants from the EU is 2% lower than last year at 49,650, but applicants from outside the EU is currently up 10% to 89,130.
Meanwhile, the overall number of applicants, of all ages from all domiciles, currently stands at 652,790, and it is the highest figure in four years, Ucas has said.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, there was a 17% increase in new applicants between March 23 and June 30 – a total of 54,810 this year, compared with 46,770 in the equivalent period in 2019.
A total of 514,020 people of all ages from across the UK have now applied through Ucas this year for a place on an undergraduate course – up 1.6% on this point in 2019.
But prospective students who have applied to study this year can request to defer at any point in the application cycle as there is no set deadline.
If there is a second wave of the pandemic, or more local lockdowns in the months to come, then the number of enrolments may not match the current number of applicants, the Ucas chief has suggested.
If there were a major second wave of the pandemic, then applications might not convert into enrolmentsNick Hillman, Higher Education Policy Institute
Speaking at a virtual higher education festival on Wednesday, Clare Marchant, Ucas’ chief executive, said the latest June 30 data was “very encouraging” and could mean that “more students” enrol this year than last year.
But she added that the situation was “fragile”.
She told the event: “If a second spike occurred, and if we get more regional lockdowns, anything I say goes out the window because people’s confidence levels take a real dip.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said: “The appetite for higher education continues to grow – and it’s not surprising given that the alternative options, like finding a secure job, will be worse this year.
“However, we are not out of the woods because there is a difference between applying and enrolling. If, for example, there were a major second wave of the pandemic, then applications might not convert into enrolments.”
Ms Marchant said: “Confidence is building for an autumn term that safely captures the essence of the academic year’s traditional start as much as possible.”
She added: “We should celebrate seeing so many people keen to embark on a rewarding career in nursing. Inspirational stories throughout this pandemic have clearly sparked imaginations, with people from all walks of life applying, determined to help others at a time when our universities are making huge contributions to fighting coronavirus.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive at Universities UK, said the figures show that individuals “recognise the many benefits that a university education brings for their life chances, career prospects and their future.”
He added: “Students can be confident that they will benefit from a high-quality and positive experience at university this autumn, with the vast majority of universities planning to deliver much teaching, student support and social activities in person.”