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Applications for full-time undergraduate places at UK universities have dropped by 5 per cent from home students and 7 per cent from EU students, new figures from UCAS show.
The news has brought a call from university leaders for Brexit-related transitional arrangements for fees and financial support for EU students to be extended to those considering applying for courses starting in 2018.
A total 564,190 people had applied to UK higher education courses for 2017 by the 15 January deadline - a decrease of 5 per cent compared to the same point last year.
Overall, UK applicant figures have decreased by 5 per cent to a total of 469,490 and EU applicant figures decreased by 7 per cent to 42,070. The number of applicants from other overseas countries is 52,630, similar to last year.
Across the UK, the number applying to higher education has fallen: from England by 6 per cent, from Northern Ireland by 5 per cent, from Scotland by 2 per cent and from Wales by 7 per cent.
The UCAS analysis reveals that the largest decreases are for older applicants from England and Wales. In England the number of 19 year old applicants has fallen by 9 per cent, 20 year olds by 9 per cent, 21-24 by 15 per cent, and 25 and over by 23 per cent.
The number of first time applicants has decreased by 4 per cent, whilst the total re-applying to higher education has decreased by 10 per cent.
The subject experiencing the most notable decrease in applicants is nursing. Applicants from England making at least one choice to nursing fell by 23 per cent to 33,810 in 2017. Most applicants to nursing are over 19 years old and English applicants from this age group decreased by between 16 per cent and 29 per cent. English 18 year old nursing applicants fell by 10 per cent. English applicants to courses other than nursing fell by 4 per cent, ranging from an increase of 1 per cent for 18 year olds and a reduction of 17 per cent for 25 and over.
The largest group of applicants are 18 year olds from the UK. In contrast to figures for older age groups, applicant numbers from this group are similar to last year at 272,330, despite a fall of 1 per cent in the 18 year old population.
In England, the proportion of 18 year olds in the population who apply to university has risen to a record 37 per cent, but the increase is smaller than in recent years. In Northern Ireland and Wales, application rates for 18 year olds have fallen slightly from last year’s record levels, and in Scotland they remain unchanged.
The application rate of young people living in areas least represented in higher education has increased to 22.1 per cent for the UK, the highest level recorded. In England, the application rate from these areas increased to 22.5 per cent, the highest level recorded. In Northern Ireland, the rate remained stable at 24.4 per cent, while in Wales it decreased to 19.7 per cent.
The number of 18 year old UK applicants from most ethnic groups increased in 2017, the UCAS figures show. 18 year old applicants from the Asian ethnic group increased by 5 per cent (to 32,500), by 1 per cent for the Black ethnic group (to 13,480), and by 5 per cent for the Mixed ethnic group (to 11,830). 18 year old applicants from the White ethnic group fell by 2 per cent (to 208,880). When looking at applicants of all ages, there were reductions for each of these ethnic groups, with the largest being a reduction of 10 per cent from the Black ethnic group (which has a higher proportion of older applicants than average).
“Despite the overall decrease, it is encouraging that the number of 18 year old applicants remains high, and that application rates for disadvantaged groups continue to rise,” said Mary Curnock Cook, UCAS Chief Executive.
“However, we are seeing large falls for older applicants, partly because of strong young recruitment in recent years depleting the pool of potential mature applicants, and probably also reflecting increased employment, the higher minimum wage, and more apprenticeship opportunities.
“About half the fall in nursing applicants is mirroring the fall in non-nursing applicants from older age groups.
“It’s clear that the tough recruitment environment for universities will continue through 2017, leading to unprecedented choice and opportunity for applicants."
Commenting on the figures, Dame Julia Goodfellow?, President of Universities UK and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, said: “There seem to be a number of factors behind this decline in applicant figures. This includes the possible impact of the Brexit vote on EU applicants and changes to the way degrees in nursing, midwifery and some other allied health professions in England are funded.
“While the drop is not catastrophic, particularly given last year's record high, there is a need to address some issues urgently.”
To avoid future uncertainty over the impact of Brexit on EU students wishing to study in the UK, the government should extend guarantees on fee levels and financial support to those considering applying for courses starting in 2018, she added.
“It is important also that we make clear that European students continue to be welcome at UK universities and that their contribution to academic life is invaluable. More than 125,000 EU students are currently studying at universities across the UK and they make an important cultural and academic contribution to campus life.
“Given the strong demand, there is a big opportunity to attract more students to study in the UK. We need the government to take action to make the UK an even more attractive destination for qualified students and talented university staff from around the world," she said.
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