In this article, we’ll be discussing the effects of the turbulent 2020 admissions cycle.

We heard from Andy Frampton, Customer Success Director and Mike Adams, Principal Insight Consultant, both of UCAS to understand how Covid-19 had impacted university admissions.

Key Statistics

In 2020, there were widespread fears amongst universities that the deferral rate would skyrocket.[1]

The rate remained under 6% for the admissions cycle, with the clearing rate going up by 7% with much of the activity happening far later than normal.

Over 500,000 students secured a place at a university, up 4% on 2019. All regions of the UK saw increases in the number of placed applicants. There were notable increases seen in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Southeast of England.

Of those who applied, the key characteristics can be broken down as follows:

  • 160,610 of UK 18-year-old women applied to an undergraduate course compared with 121,370 men
  • 33.9% of UK domiciled 18-year-old men applied, compared to 47.3% of women
  • 18-year-old applicants domiciled in the UK increased by 2.3% to 281,980, despite population decrease
  • Increase in 30-34 UK domiciled applicants by 9% to 14,470 and 35+ applicants by 13% to 26,890
  • Women are now 1.40 times more likely to have applied in the main scheme, compared to 1.37 times last year [1]

Acceptances increased across most subjects, specifically those aligned to medicine which saw a 13% increase in placed applicants, mostly driven by those aged 35+ applying for nursing courses.

Percentage change in placed applicants vs 2019.[1]

The largest growth in UK acceptances was amongst older applicants, with groups over 21 increasing, while 19-year-olds declined by 5%.

Growth also continued from international recruitment, with the largest increase from Asian nations, while EU nations saw a large decrease.

Percentage change in placed applicants from abroad vs 2019.[1]

The Impact of Covid-19

At the height of Covid-19 nervousness, 25% of applicants said they were thinking of deferring their university place.[1]

However, despite the overwhelming sentiment indicating an increase in deferrals, the rate did not increase significantly, increasing only by 0.3%.

Non-EU deferrals did increase, with 6.8% of applicants deferring in 2020 as opposed to 3.8% in 2019.[1]

In terms of clearing, acceptances were up 7% from the previous year which was largely driven by late applicants applying directly to clearing. A snapshot of applicants’ thoughts on the process shows:

  • 46%  were considering changing their university choices
  • 35% of students were planning on using clearing
  • 22% of students said they would use clearing to ‘trade up’ to a higher ranked university[1]
Clearing activity increased much later than usual in 2020.[1]

Clearing Plus had a positive effect, with the service helping those already in the Clearing process to make decisions on applying for alternative universities and courses.

  • 21,000 students registered an interest with at least one course through the Clearing Plus service
  • 7,000 of those were then contacted by a provider regarding that course
  • 40% of these were placed at a provider they registered an interest in [1]

While applications did not decrease in the way that was expected, there has been a change in considerations when choosing a university due to Covid-19.

23% of applicants were thinking of choosing a local university to be closer to home, with 22% of applicants solely applying to local universities.

10% of applicants stated that their parents were worried about some universities due to the potential for local lockdowns. 6% of students said they would avoid universities in areas that had experienced local lockdowns.

However, over 50% of applicants stated that the quality of teaching was a bigger consideration than the risk of a lockdown.

The other big impact of Covid-19 has been the increase in other options that applicants are considering. While 33% of respondents stated they were not considering anything else other than their desired course and university, over 66% of students said other options were still appealing:

  • 21% were considering a gap year to work
  • 17% were considering a gap year to travel (if possible)
  • 17% were considering a degree apprenticeship
  • 15% were considering an apprenticeship
  • 12% were considering a full-time job
  • 12% were considering an internship
  • 9% were considering distance learning or a massive open online course [1]

Alongside these other options, there has been another shift in priorities.

51% of applicants now rank the graduate employment rate as one of the most influential factors in their application process.

Living with parents, an option to study abroad, or opting for a totally new subject were the three factors that ranked last in applicants considerations when applying for a university.

The most influential factors were the aforementioned graduate employment rate, high ranking league table place, and courses with a placement year in industry.

This cohort of applicants has been said to want ‘recession proof’ degrees.[1]

Covid-19’s Impacts beyond 2021

UCAS’ response to the pandemic has prioritised four key areas.

  1. Coordinating Announcements

To try and alleviate some of the confusion caused by different institutions and organisations releasing information at different times, especially when the information was prone to rapid change, UCAS wants to coordinate all announcements affecting potential applicants.

Ofqual, governmental departments, British Council, Office for Students, alongside UCAS and several other partners are all involved in the process of putting out coordinated communications.

2. Supporting stability

With students going through such turbulent times and having very little certainty in any part of the process in 2020, UCAS are committed to extending deadlines and making these decisions as early as possible.

They are rethinking their approach to make it more data-driven and student-first, giving them as much time as possible to help make concrete decisions.

3. Maintaining Services

Another priority of UCAS is to limit any disruption caused by lockdowns and the workforce being furloughed.

Keeping services running smoothly throughout any potential restrictions by setting up workers to operate effectively from home is vital to keeping the process as slick as possible.

4. Going Social

Digitising as many services as possible even more so than they currently are, is also high on the agenda for UCAS.

They have launched Facebook Live events for mass question and answer sessions, as well as hosting other webinars on parts of the application process and university-related matters.

UCAS expect applications to increase again in the next cycle, following the current trend, however, their services need readjusting following the 6% decrease in telephone queries, giving way to a 10% increase in social media responses.


[1] Frampton, Andy. Customer Success Director, UCAS. Adams, Mike. Principal Insight Consultant, UCAS. 2021. UCAS: Admissions and the Impact of Covid-19

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In 2020, there were widespread fears amongst universities that the deferral rate would skyrocket. In this article we’ll be discussing the effects of the turbulent 2020 admissions cycle.

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