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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 was particular concern about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on student numbers, especially those from overseas.

Key data on the overall student population

  • In 2021/22 there were 2.86 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 fell by 40% between 2008/9 and 2020/21, while part-time students on ‘other undergraduate’ courses fell by 73%, those on first degrees by 12% 8% postgraduate research courses by 8%. Part-time entrants to taught postgraduate courses have increased by 3% over this period.

Applicants and entrants to full-time undergraduate courses

Broad trends over the last decade

  • 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, 2021 and 2022. 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.
  • There were 757,000 applications for full-time undergraduate places through UCAS in 2023, down by almost 10,000 on the record level from 2022. Just over 550,000 of these applicants were accepted.

    Applicant and entrance patterns since 2020

  • 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. The number of EU students starting full-time undergraduate courses fell by 67% between 2020 and 2023 to its lowest level since 1994.
  • The number of non-EU overseas applicants increased to record levels in each year from 2019 to 2022, 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%.
  • Acceptances increased by 0.2% in 2022. There was a continued drop in EU students and older home students, but increases in 18 year olds from the UK and entrants from outside the EU.
  • Acceptances fell by 1.5% in 2023 to their lowest level since before the pandemic. There was no increase in non-EU students to offset the fall in home and EU students.
  • The higher education entry rate among UK 18 year olds increased from 24.7% in 2006 to 30.7% in 2015 and peaked at 38.2% in 2021. It fell back to 35.8%in 2023.

 Summary charts of student numbers showng trends in accepted applicants by type, 18 year old entry rates by characteristics and trends in the number of first years by level

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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