• In 2020/21 there were 2.66 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 almost two-thirds. The large majority on these courses are part-time UK students.
  • Total part-time entrants have fallen by 40% since 2008/9, 73% in ‘other undergraduate’ courses, 12% first degrees and 8% postgraduate research courses. Part-time entrants to taught postgraduate courses have increased by 3% over this period
  • There were 750,000 applications for full-time undergraduate places through UCAS in 2021, a new record level. Around 560,000 of these applicants were accepted.
  • 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 reached new record highs in 2020 and 2021. 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% in 2020 and 5.1% in 2021, driven by an increased number of 18 year olds in the population and higher application rates in this age group
  • Brexit meant new EU students would face higher fees from 2021 and would not be eligible for fee loans. Applications from EU students fell by 40% in 2021.
  • Applications from other overseas students increased to record levels in 2020 and 2021, despite concerns over Covid-19.
  • The total the number of accepted applicants through UCAS in 2020 was up by 5.4% to a new record high. Numbers fell back in 2021 by 8,400 or 1.5%. This was driven by a fall of 16,300 or 50% in accepted applicants from the EU. Acceptances from home applicants were up by 1.4% and those from other overseas applicants increased by 2.4%.
  • Applications for 2022 up to the 26 January ‘equal consideration’ deadline were down by 1% compared to the same point in the 2021 cycle. There were particularly large falls among older applicants.


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, EU students, 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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