Recent data releases have shown trends for prospective students applying to university remain stable, despite rising costs of living for students.

However, significant financial barriers and pressures could threaten application numbers in coming years. A new study by HEPI and Unipol warns that student’s ability to study away from home could be reduced, as analysis of rent costs across 10 major cities found that maintenance loans and grants fail to cover the cost of living for students, as these are now almost wholly absorbed by rent.[1]

For HE providers, costs have risen dramatically as student fees have remained frozen since 2016, and cost associated with maintaining real estate and payrolls have risen with inflation. Confounding these issues, successive messaging from the Government signalling ambitions to reduce numbers attending HE and studying ‘rip off’ degrees risks harming application numbers, and sits counter to the nation’s needs.

Nearly all employers face skills gaps and require new and evolving skills, meaning we need more students to access the skills provided by HE, across their diverse routes and courses. Employers understand this, and the employment market for graduates remains strong.  

Recent surveying by the Institute of Student Employers found that, for the first time, less than half of employers require a 2:1 or above as an entry criteria for a graduate job, showing the high value in having a degree at any level and the employability of  graduates.  

Against this evolving and complicated landscape, an internationally competitive knowledge economy needs widespread education to tertiary level. The UK currently sits at 57.7% of 25-34 year olds holding a tertiary level qualification, above the OECD average, but below world leaders Japan, Canada and Korea.  

Considering the significant financial pressures faced by students, and the education disruption 18-year-old applicants have experienced across previous years, application figures demonstrate the continued draw and attractiveness of HE as an education route and pathway to employment.

Coming months will show whether applications convert to enrolment, and as these macro factors continue to come to play, student pathway trends will undoubtedly tell a story.

Application numbers in detail

UCAS data on university application rates report that 72,740 prospective students have applied to start an undergraduate course next year – of which 51,890 are from the UK.

Over the last decade, total domestic student application numbers climbed gradually until applications to begin study in 2022 reached a peak at 55,990, before dropping slightly in the two application cycles since. This year, the number of domestic student applications for 2024 sits 7% lower than the 2022 peak, but above 2020 levels (47,660), the last pre-pandemic application window, and only 2% below application figures to begin study in 2023 (53,120).

The sector further saw increased applications from students from underrepresented groups, despite recent analysis from the Sutton Trust evidencing more needs to be done to support underrepresented groups accessing HE and the most selective universities.

2024 application data reveals the number of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds that have applied to undergraduate courses has hit a record high, up 7% from 2022. Additionally, new data from the Department for Education shows the numbers from state and special schools entering HE in 2021-22 hit 48.6%, up 1.6% from previous cohorts.

[1] Student rent across 10 cities averaged £7,475, while the average maintenance loan is in England for 23/24 is predicted at £7,590. As a result, in coming years we could see greater numbers of students applying to universities in a commutable distance, to online-only courses, or choosing other routes.