Jan 262013

In 2012, tens of thousands fewer students accepted university places in England that had done in 2011.  It had been widely expected that highly ranked universities would take students from those in the middle of the league tables (the ‘squeezed middle’). This post looks at how the increases and decreases in student intake in 2012 varied with league table position. It also looks at the pattern of increase and decrease in three different groups, the  Russell Group, other pre-1992 Universities and post-1992 Universities.

Although the figures show a tendency for a decline in intake numbers at lower ranked universities, there are huge variations between universities of very similar rank. Across the groups, the greatest average reductions in intake numbers occurred in post-1992 Universities. There was much less decline in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland than in England..

The decline and the pattern of variation give a first indication of the way that the changes in fees and in the rules by which university admission operates have affected intakes. They raise interesting questions both for those whose student numbers have increased and for those whose student numbers have decreased.

The UCAS figures on applications and acceptances in 2012  were published on January 18th. Figures for previous years are available on the same web site. A comparison table for 2011 and 2012 is available on the Times Higher website. In English universities there was a decrease of over 26000 student acceptances from 2011 to 2012, with the following differences between groups:-

  • The Russell Group in England kept overall intake constant.
  • Other English pre-1992 universities showed a decline of about 5% in their intake on average.
  • English post-1992 universities showed a decline of nearly 10% in their intake on average.

In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland there was very little decline:

  • the Russell Group increased intake by over 1600 students, about 8% of their total intake.
  • the pre 1992 group showed negligible change
  • the post’1992 group showed a decline in intake of about 2000 students, about 8% of their total intake.

This summary ignores huge variations within each group, which are shown in the graphs below. There is a story on the THE website commenting on which institutions gained and lost the most students.

The graph below shows how the increase or decrease in student intake varies with league table position.

Numbers of students gained or lost for Universities in different positions in the Complete University Guide League table


The most striking feature of the data is the big variations between universities with very similar league table positions. It would be impossible to predict from its league-table position whether a university increased or decreased its intake. It is true that there is a general tendency for increases to be more common in the high-ranking universities and for decreases to be more prominent at low-ranking universities but there are universities in the top twenty that have decreased intake by hundreds of students and universities in the bottom twenty that have increased by hundreds. Note that this is not a comprehensive chart – it is based on the overlap between the Complete University Guide league table  and the UCAS data published last week.

To get a better sense of the pattern of increases and decreases we can group similar universities together. An easy starting point is to separate the data into three groups, Russell Group, other pre-1992 Universities and post-1992 universities. We get the following table of gains and losses for the different groups.

Change 2012 total Average Increase Percentage increase
Russell Group, England 240 87,620 12 0.3%
Russell Group, Scotland, Wales, N.Ireland 1,633 19,599 408 8.3%
Other Pre ’92 England -3,077 58,647 -147 -5.2%
Other Pre ’92, Scotland, Wales, N.Ireland -172 26,894 -17 -0.6%
Post ’92 England -22,750 213,862 -379 -10.6%
Post ’92, Scotland, Wales, N.Ireland -2,189 28,206 -168 -7.8%
Others -1,181 29,312 -8 -4.0%
Totals -27496 464140 -98 -5.9%

The first column of data, headed ‘Change’, shows the difference between the 2012 and 2011 figures for that group. The next column shows the total number of students admitted in 2012. The next column shows the average change, per institution, and the right-hand column shows the increase in numbers for the group expressed as a percentage.

However, the pattern of gains and losses within the different groups is highly variable, as shown in the set of graphs below:-

UCAS Acceptances in 2012 vs in 2011 for (a) Russell Group Universities, (b) Other Pre-1992 Universities and (c) Post-1992 Universities

UCAS Acceptances in 2012 vs in 2011 for (a) Russell Group Universities, (b) Other Pre-1992 Universities and (c) Post-1992 Universities

Each point represents one university. The 2012 acceptance numbers are on the vertical axis and the 2011 acceptance numbers on the horizontal axis. Red squares represent English universities. Blue squares represent Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish universities. On the blue line, 2012 is the same as 2011. Points above the line represent universities that  increased intake in 2012. Points below the line represent universities that decreased intake in 2012.

The top left graph (a) shows results for the Russell Group. The red points are clustered evenly either side of the line, confirming that English Russell Group universities maintained their numbers, on average. However, many individual universities lie above or below the line, showing increases and decreases of up to 1000. All the blue points lie above the line, confirming that every one of the four Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Russell Group universities gained hundreds of students.

The top, right graph (b) shows a pattern of decreasing intakes for English pre-1992 universities. Almost all the points lie on or below the line. Institutions from other parts of the UK are scattered evenly about the line, with some of them showing increases or decreases of several hundred students.

The bottom graph (c) shows an overall pattern of decrease for all post-1992 Universities. There are big differences between individual universities and overall a slightly greater average decrease for English universities (about 10%) than for those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (about 8%).

The factors driving the changes in English university admissions have been widely aired.

  • Quotas were reduced both to create a pool of quota places available to low-cost providers and to create a free market of  students with qualifications equivalent to or better than AAB at A-level.
  • It was assumed that an appetite for growth in highly ranked universities would lead them to entice well-qualified students away from middle-ranked universities.
  • Fewer than expected numbers of students achieved qualifications equivalent to AAB.
  • Some tens of thousands of students decided not to complete the application process.
  • We can also expect that a proportion of the accepted students (these figures) will decide not to take up their places.

Before drawing any conclusion, it is important to raise two caveats about the data.

  • The numbers include some overseas students and exclude some home students, so they should be taken as a rough guide to intake numbers.
  • Several universities have stated that they are deliberately reducing numbers because the increased fee provides an incentive and an opportunity to raise both the quality of the educational offer and entry standards.

These caveats suggest that the patterns of increase and decrease are likely to vary again next year and in subsequent years. For me rather than conclusions, I have a number of questions.

  • The numbers of home and EU students accepted in English Universities fell by more than 5% in 2012. Early signs are that applications have fallen further this year. How long will that decline continue?
  • How long will it take universities who lost students this year to win numbers back by emulating the successful approaches of those who gained extra entrants this year?
  • Will competitive pressures drive innovations in the kinds of course and modes of study offered by universities?
  • Will competition between universities drive a recovery in total numbers of entrants.
  • Will the students who declined places this year enter university at some time in the future?
  • The parameters of admissions changed again in 2013, with a further reduction in quota and an extension of the free market down to ABB. Will this allow some of the Universities that lost students this year to regain them? Will it cause new decreases elsewhere?