Record numbers have university places this year but ‘many still missing out’

Record numbers of UK 18-year-olds have secured a place at university or college after the first exams since the pandemic, but an education leaders’ group warned that “huge numbers” of students are also missing out.

Newly-released figures showed 275,390 students had been accepted onto a course some 28 days after students across England, Wales and Northern Ireland received their A-level results.

That figure is up 1% on last year and a 15% rise from 239,460 in 2019, which was the last time results were based on exams rather than teacher assessment.

Of the 21,000 students who did not have a place on results day after getting their grades, 58% have since gone on to secure a place, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) said.

While that is up from 55% last year, it is down from 62% in 2019, the organisation said.

In the figures, released on Thursday, Ucas also said the number of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas in the UK accepted into university has reached an all-time high.

They gave the figure as 31,890, which is up from 30,280 last year and 26,000 in 2019.

The analysis showed 14,760 UK 18-year-olds used clearing to switch courses this year and of those, 11,800 secured a new place at an equivalent or higher tariff university.

Ucas said 62,200 international students of all ages and 78,160 mature learners – students aged 21 and over – have been placed at university this year.

That is a 10% fall on 2021 and down 11% from 2019, they said.

Ucas chief executive Clare Marchant said: “This year we see a record number of students, including high numbers of disadvantaged students, about to start their course at university or college based on exams results.

“We predicted clearing would be dynamic this year and I am pleased to see record numbers of UK 18-year-old students secure a place in clearing.

“This includes significant numbers of students making more ambitious choices by using the digital tools we make available to them.

“With high demand for university places, it also shows that students are now confidently using a more digital and personalised clearing to explore other options available to them.

“For students who are still considering their options, Ucas is on hand to help them make an informed decision that best suits their aspirations. There remains plenty of choice with more than 22,000 courses available in clearing, along with a range of apprenticeship opportunities.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), warned that the projected continued rise in the population of 18-year-olds is likely to put further pressure on university places in future.

He said: “While there may be record numbers of students entering higher education, there are also huge numbers missing out.

“Many of these applicants are young people who have been hit by the effects of the pandemic which has caused severe disruption to their education over the past two years, and they deserve and need as much support as possible.

“Instead, we see that the percentage of students securing a place through clearing this year has actually fallen to 58% compared to 62% in 2019 when exams were last taken.

“Too many young people appear to have been let down by a higher education system which should have done better for them.”

He called for more focus on options for young people, including alternatives to university.

He said: “The higher education sector, the government and employers all need to think about how they create opportunities for all young people in the future, not only at universities but through apprenticeship schemes which offer sufficient breadth and quality across a range of industries.

“This must be supported by more government investment in independent careers advice and information which schools and colleges can draw upon to help their students identify and secure the choices which best suit their needs.

“We must become a society which genuinely promotes and facilitates a range of pathways for young people, allowing them to fulfil their aspirations and provide the array of skills the country requires for a successful and prosperous future.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “This data shows students this year have been using clearing to their advantage by exploring the options that are available to them and making more informed choices.

“While 21,000 students missed the terms of their offer on results day – fewer students than in 2019 – of those, 58% have gone on to secure a place at university which is in line with both 2019 and 2021.”