UCAS reported that ‘more students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds across the UK entered HE in 2020 than ever before […] the impact of Covid-19 on students, especially those from a disadvantaged background, was one of the biggest concerns the education sector faced this year’ [1].  

The Covid Cohort – the best year yet for Widening Participation? 

This Covid cohort saw gaps in entry rates between those most and less advantaged narrowed to a record low of 2.24. Additionally, Higher tariff providers and medicine courses accepted more disadvantaged students than ever before [1]. We also saw a record number of 18-year-old acceptances from the lowest participation areas. 

While these results are very promising the report highlights that there is still a way to go. Regional gaps in entry persist, with 49.1% of London-based 18-year-olds entering HE, compared to 32.4% of those from the South West. Similarly, the equality gap remains stark – advantaged students are nearly 25 times more likely than their disadvantaged peers to be placed on medicine courses. 

Despite a decade of progress in WP, headway has slowed in more recent years, with the MEM equality gap narrowing by an average of 1.1% year on year since 2015 versus 4.4% across the previous five years [1] 

How will UCAS continue to support levelling up in 2021? 

  1. Corporate Strategy: To expand beyond the traditional 3 years of higher education and support students on their next steps whatever that may be (higher technical qualifications, apprenticeships, other modes of study, etc.).   
  1. Supporting Stability: Increased flexibility with extended deadlines. Surveys have informed data-led decisions and supported the education sector through sharing these insights.  
  1. Communication Channels: Carys explained how they switched their communication channel of preference to social media. They had informative Facebook live sessions, shared information through BBC Bitesize, running online discover days. Overall, they reported an 80% increase in social interaction.  
  1. Supporting students through the application process: This is important as it takes the burden away from school staff who can focus on ensuring any education missed is caught up. UCAS has worked to enhance their ‘wrap-around package of information and advice’. Cary spoke to us about events they run such as ‘the application coach’ which help students with their personal statements.  
  1. Helping advisors: Teachers’ main priority is getting students back on track. Tools are available to help them with speeding up reference writing and the visibility of the typical grade’s universities accept students with. [2] 

Looking to the Future 

Universities UK’s fair admissions review made several recommendations to reform the undergraduate admissions system. These included greater transparency, consistency, and standard indicators to support contextual offer-making. Additionally, they proposed a switch to post-qualification admissions and the ending of ‘conditional unconditional’ offers [3].  

UCAS agrees that ‘reform, innovation, and change in admissions is continual and necessary as our education system changes’. They are looking to reform the admissions process to consider:  

  • the role of predicted grades  
  • unconditional offers  
  • access for disadvantaged students  
  • the efficacy of asking applicants to choose their options six months before they know their exam results  

While admissions reform will not address all of the challenges facing widening access and participation it will contribute to an improvement [1]. 


[1] UCAS.com. 2020. What Happened to the Covid Cohort? Lessons for Levelling Up in 2021 and Beyond. [online] [Accessed 21/04/21]

[2] Fisher, C., 2020. Widening Participation 2020: Ensuring Access and Opportunity For All Conference 

[3] universitiesuk.ac.uk. 2020. Fair Admissions Review [online] [Accessed 21/04/21]

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UCAS reported that more students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds across the UK entered HE in 2020 than ever before, the impact of Covid-19 on students, especially those from a disadvantaged background has been severe.

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