Record number of disadvantaged students in UK apply for most selective courses

The number of people who have applied to study medicine courses has also increased during the pandemic.

Students at a university graduation ceremony
Students at a university graduation ceremony

A record number of 18-year-olds in the UK from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have applied to the most selective universities and courses.

The number of disadvantaged students applying for a place on the most competitive higher education courses has increased by 8% compared with last year, Ucas figures show.

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.

It comes after the proportion of GCSE and A-level entries awarded the top grades surged to a record high this year after results were determined by teachers amid cancelled exams due to Covid-19.

A record number of would-be doctors have also applied to study medicine.

In total, 29,710 people have applied to medicine courses for 2022, compared with 28,690 last year – a rise of 4%.

The figure has been boosted by a 28% increase in the number of reapplicants applying for medicine courses – from 4,470 last year to 5,710 this year.

People are classified as a reapplier if they have applied to any course at any institution in the previous cycle.

It is not necessarily those who have reapplied for a medicine course or the same medicine course, Ucas has said.

Overall, 77,810 people have applied for all courses with an October 15 deadline, up 1% on last year.

EU applicants have fallen by 16% from 5,220 last year to 4,370 this year, while international applicants from outside the EU have remained static (17,460 this year compared with 17,510 last year).

But demand from China continues to be strong, with a 5% increase in applications this year – from 4,340 last year to 4,570 this year.

The figures show that 3,030 British 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds have applied.

Meanwhile, 17,570 of the most advantaged 18-year-olds in the UK applied this year, which is up by 1%.

Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said: “It is heartening to see that this cohort of students – some of the hardest hit by the Covid pandemic who didn’t get to sit their GCSEs and National 5s, and have had almost two years of disruption to their studies – are being ambitious with their university and college applications.

“It is particularly pleasing to see a narrowing of the disadvantage gap, with 8% more students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds aiming high and applying to the most competitive courses.

“We know that increased demand and the continued rise in the number of 18-year-olds in the UK population will put a squeeze on available places, particularly those at the most competitive institutions and on the most competitive courses.”

The Department for Education (DfE) has said it is “firmly committed” to GCSE and A-level pupils sitting exams with adaptations next summer.

Grade boundaries for 2022 will be set reflecting a “midway point” between 2019 and 2021 results, so results next summer will be higher than before the pandemic but not as high as in 2020 and 2021.

Ms Marchant added: “Universities and colleges are used to dealing with a wide range of different qualifications from different educational settings, and whilst this year presents challenges, we are confident in their ability to continue delivering a fair and transparent process.

“Examinations are only one part of the picture, with admissions professionals looking at the full application to build the picture of their applicant, including potentially additional assessment methods such as interviews.

“Confidence in higher education in the UK remains strong, so I would encourage students to continue to be aspirational, but realistic, and ensure that they have a back-up plan so they can remain open to all the opportunities available to them.”

The Ucas deadline for all other higher education courses is January 26.

Addressing the rise in disadvantaged applicants, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “This is testament to the hard work of schools and colleges in teaching and supporting these young people so well and giving them the confidence to aim high.

“That is an achievement at any time but particularly so during a pandemic which has often hit disadvantaged young people the hardest.

“However, there is still a long way to go. There are still nearly six times as many applications from the most advantaged students for these universities and courses compared to the most disadvantaged.”

Mr Barton has called for more Government investment in early years education, schools and colleges to tackle the educational attainment gap.

A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman 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.

“Universities recognise the disruption students have faced over the past 18 months and are ready to support this year’s applicants in reaching their full potential.”

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