The number of school leavers from the UK who deferred their places at university this year increased, Ucas figures show.
Overall, a total of 24,855 British 18-year-olds postponed starting their course for a year compared to 21,670 in 2020 – a rise of 15%, according to data published by the university admissions service.
Sixth-formers applying to start degrees next year could face more competition amid the rise in deferrals, more 18-year-olds in the population and a high demand for places at top universities, sector leaders say.
The latest Ucas figures show that for the first time more than 100,000 British 18-year-olds were accepted onto courses at the most competitive universities and colleges this autumn.
It comes after the proportion of A-level entries awarded the top grades surged to a record high this summer after results were determined by teachers amid cancelled exams due to Covid-19.
Data from Ucas’ End of Cycle report shows that 103,010 young people across the UK were accepted at higher-tariff providers in 2021, up 11% from 92,650 in 2020 and up 28% from 80,380 in 2019.
The number of UK 18-year-old applicants achieving A-level grades equivalent to three A*s nearly quadrupled from pre-pandemic levels to 19,595 (5,655 in 2019), and it rose compared to 2020 (12,735).
The Department for Education (DfE) has said it is “firmly committed” to GCSE and A-level pupils sitting their exams with adaptations in summer 2022, rather than using teacher grades.
Next year’s grade boundaries will be set reflecting a “midway point” between 2019 and 2021 results – which means overall results will be higher than before Covid-19, but not as high as in 2020 and 2021.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank, believes sixth-formers applying to start courses in autumn 2022 could face tougher competition due to more deferrals.
He told the PA news agency: “Especially because there’s more 18-year-olds too, plus some vice-chancellors are keen not to expand their institutions much further.
“Also grade inflation is meant to be partially unwound next year, tightening things up even more. The toughest areas will, as always, be things like medicine.”
Mr Hillman added that he was not surprised by the rise in deferrals due to “horror stories about student life” at the time that applicants were sending off their Ucas forms.
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “We understand why there has been an increase in the number of students choosing to defer starting their course for a year in the light of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
“It is likely that some students were unsure over exactly what their student experience might be like and were in a position where they could defer.
“However, this clearly creates a risk of extra pressure on university places next year, particularly when combined with an increase in the number of 18-year-olds and high demand for places at the most selective universities.
“It will be important that universities have systems in place to cope with this situation and ensure that students are able to access courses which match their aptitude and aspirations.”
The Ucas figures also show that the number of EU applicants who were accepted onto degree courses in 2021 fell by 50% to 16,025 this year.
Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said: “Students’ hard work throughout the pandemic has been rightly recognised through their teachers’ assessments.
“Their achievements, combined with the flexibility shown by universities and colleges, means thousands more students are benefiting from the opportunity to study a degree, especially at the most competitive institutions.
“While many of 2021’s applicants have progressed with their original plans, we are already seeing high achieving students choosing to reapply in the current cycle, as they carefully consider their options.”
Figures released by Ucas in October showed that a record number of 18-year-olds in the UK from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have applied to the most selective universities and courses this year.
The deadline for applications to study medicine, dentistry and veterinary science next autumn was on October 15. This is also the deadline for students to apply for 2022 courses at Oxford and Cambridge.
Ms Marchant added: “With more students interested in studying at our world-class universities and colleges each year, together with the growth of UK’s 18-year-old population over the next decade and an increase in deferrals from 2021, the 2022 cycle will be more competitive for some courses.
“We’ll be supporting students every step of the way and universities will have plans in place to manage admissions as fairly as possible.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson said: “We are pleased to see the continuing high demand for higher education study this year particularly with the further growth in applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
“It is also positive to see that clearly, university remains an excellent choice and popular route for students.
“Universities recognise the disruption students have faced due to the pandemic and are ready to support this year’s applicants in reaching their full potential alongside those that applied and deferred from last year.”