Headline student numbers have increased to new records following a short dip after to the 2012 reforms. There are however ongoing concerns about numbers outside this group where trends have not been so positive, including part-time undergraduates, some postgraduates students, overseas students from some countries, especially Nigeria and Malaysia, mature students and some disadvantaged groups. There is also considerable concern about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and student numbers, particularly those from overseas and uncertainty about the impact of Brexit on EU student numbers.

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  • In academic year 2018/19 there were 2.4 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 49% since 2008/10, 72% in ‘other undergraduate’ courses, 27% first degrees, 16% taught postgraduate and 10% postgraduate research courses.
  • There were just over 700,000 applications for full-time undergraduate places through UCAS in 2019 and 541,000 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 for 2020 at the pre-clearing deadline of 30 June were up by 2.3 % and reached their highest level at this stage in the process since 2016. 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 1.6%, those from the EU were down by 4.2% and those from other overseas students were up by 9.6%.
  • While the number of applicants through UCAS for 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.


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/backrounds 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 postgraduates students, overseas students from some countries, especially Nigeria and Malaysia, mature students and some disadvantaged groups.

There is also considerable concern about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and 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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