• In 2019/20 there were 2.46 million students at UK higher education institutions.
  • Most full-time students are studying first degrees. There are proportionately more overseas students studying postgraduate courses.
  • Over the past decade the number of entrants to ‘other undergraduate’ courses has fallen by over two-thirds. The large majority on these courses are part-time UK students.
  • Total part-time entrants have fallen by 50% since 2008/9, 74% in ‘other undergraduate’ courses, 23% first degrees, 15% taught postgraduate and 19% postgraduate research courses.
  • There were almost 730,000 applications for full-time undergraduate places through UCAS in 2020 and 570,000 were accepted. Both figures are new records.
  • Applicant numbers fell in 2012 with larger falls among those who faced fees of up to £9,000. The total was 7.6% down.
  • Applicant numbers bounced back in 2013. A record number were accepted in 2013 and new records were set for acceptances in each of the three following years.
  • Applicants for 2020 were up by 3.2% to a new record high. There was concern that limits on travel and the type of teaching possible with coronavirus restrictions would lead to a large drop in student numbers. Applications from home students were up by 2.1%, those from the EU were down by 0.4% and those from other overseas students were up by 12.3%.
  • The total the number of accepted applicants through UCAS in 2020 was up by 5.4% to a new record high. The number from the UK was up by around 21,000 or 4.5% to the highest number ever. The proportion of home 18 year olds with a place increased by 2.9 percentage points to a record 37.0%. There was a particularly large increase in acceptances among older students. Overall numbers from the EU were up by 1.7%. Accepted applicants from other overseas countries were up by 7,600 or 16.9%. They reached their fourth consecutive record high in 2020.
  • Applicants through UCAS for 2021 were up by 11% at the end of January compared to 2021 with large increases among older applicants from outside the EU. The number of applicants from within the EU was down by 40%.
  • While the number of applicants through UCAS for 2020 are up, the number of students eventually taking up places could show a different trend, particularly for overseas students. These figures only look at full-time undergraduates and there could be a different pattern for part-time and postgraduate students. The first data covering all students in 2020/21 is due to be published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency in January 2022.


Headline student numbers have increased to new record levels in recent years following a short dip related to the 2012 reforms in the sector. There have been continued increases in entry rates for different groups of students, including those from disadvantaged areas/backgrounds where rates have also hit new record levels.

However, headline numbers tend to focus on full-time undergraduates and there are ongoing concerns about student numbers outside this group where trends have not been so positive. This includes part-time undergraduates, particularly those not studying first degrees, some postgraduate students, overseas students from some countries (especially Malaysia Ireland, Cyprus and Germany), mature students and some disadvantaged groups.

There is also considerable concern about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on student numbers, particularly those from overseas and uncertainty about the impact of Brexit on EU student numbers.


This paper looks at trends in the size of the student population, changes in the number of entrants overall and for different types of students/courses and entry rates for different groups and areas.

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