The number of places offered by top universities has soared by almost a third in two years, after A-level results hit a record high.
The bulge in places at the most competitive universities comes after two years of teacher-assessed grades during the pandemic sparked grade inflation.
Data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) shows 103,010 young people secured places at “higher tariff” universities – which have stricter academic entrance criteria – at the end of the 2021 admissions cycle.
It marks an 11 per cent leap on the 92,650 accepted in 2020, and a 28 per cent leap on the 80,380 accepted before the pandemic in 2019.
The increase over the past year significantly exceeds the 3 per cent rise in the size of the 18-year-old population.
UCAS said its new figures revealed the most detailed insight yet into the impact of awarding grades based on teachers’ assessments as Covid forced exam cancellations.
It noted the number of applicants who had achieved three A* or equivalent grades at A-level, at 19,595, had almost doubled on 2020 levels and almost quadrupled on 2019 levels.
The latest UCAS figures also show:
- 38.3 per cent of all 18-year-olds had a confirmed place, up from 37 per cent in 2020 and 34.1 per cent in 2019.
- 81 per cent secured their first choice, up from 75 per cent last year and 75 per cent the previous year.
- Applications overall rose by 3 per cent, with 749,570 applications, though numbers with confirmed offers actually fell by 1 per cent to 562,060. Domestic applications rose 1 per cent, however.
- International applications fell 5 per cent to 142,925, and acceptances fell significantly – down 18 per cent.
- The number of 18-year-olds deferring places soared by 15 per cent to 24,855.
University ‘flexibility’ praised
Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS, said thousands more students were benefiting as their “hard work throughout the pandemic has been rightly recognised” by teacher assessments.
The “flexibility shown by universities and colleges” had also boosted numbers particularly at the most competitive institutions, she added.
She noted many other high-achieving students were also choosing to reapply in the current admissions cycle.
Marchant has previously highlighted the “squeeze on available places” particularly for competitive courses, amid both increased demand continued growth in the number of 18-year-olds in the population.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said it was “great news” many applicants were getting their first-choice places. “It’s yet more evidence that the huge value of higher education has never been so treasured as it has been during the pandemic.”
But he added: “Universities also need to be careful that they don’t expand so fast that their student experience suffers.”
Some Oxbridge colleges slashed offer numbers by as much as 15 per cent to avoid an admissions bulge this year.
He said higher applicant numbers could reflect not only better grades but also Covid’s impact on the jobs market and the growing 18-year-old population.
Increased deferrals and speculative applications could partly explain why confirmed places did not rise as much as applications, as well as some elite universities limiting numbers, he added.
Hillman also said applicants should not equate “high-tariff with good”, as applicants should take into account many factors to find the “best fit for them personally”.