Applicants choosing only competitive universities ‘unlikely’ to get many offers

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Students who apply only to “a narrow range of highly competitive and selective” university courses are unlikely to receive many offers as demand for places grows, an admissions expert at Cambridge University has warned.

Ucas, the universities admissions body in the UK, has predicted there could be 30% more applicants to higher education by the end of the decade.

Reducing the number of choices that applicants can make could help university admission staff focus on those “at the border for receipt of an offer”, Mike Nicholson, director of recruitment, admissions and participation at the University of Cambridge, has suggested.

A debate about the challenges and opportunities created by rising demand was launched by Ucas last month as it projected that around a million people a year could apply to higher education by 2030. Last year, 767,000 people applied to higher education in the UK.

“This also, however, requires universities to be honest and open in setting their entry requirements and selection criteria. It is in no-one’s interests for large numbers of candidates to waste applications for courses where they are not remotely qualified to secure a place.”

He added: “The current Ucas process allows candidates five choices; a reduction to four would immediately alter the volume that most universities would then have to consider, and potentially allow admissions staff more opportunity to focus on those who are at the border for receipt of an offer.”

The University of Cambridge admissions expert said universities have “very limited controls at their disposal” to manage their numbers.

Mr Nicholson added: “The only short-term response is to limit the number of offers, which can carry reputational risks, particularly if it results in significant numbers of applicants not securing an offer of admission, but the closer we get to 2030, the less time there will be to develop the other alternatives.”

Competition for places in higher education is likely to intensify as more students seek to secure university courses or apprenticeships, Ucas has said.

On the proposal to reduce the number of choices applicants can make from five to four, Sander Kristel, chief operating officer at Ucas, told the PA news agency: “I think this is one of the options that we seriously need to discuss.”

“If that’s the debate that the sector wants to have, I think that could be a very useful debate,” he said.

Ucas said the projected growth in demand is driven by a rise in the number of young people in the UK turning 18 over the coming decade, as well as a rise in the number of international students applying to UK universities.

In a series of essays, published as part of Ucas’s national debate, a number of leading experts in the sector have outlined how they would tackle the challenges which an increase in demand will bring.

Lord Willetts, a former universities minister who oversaw a hike in tuition fees, has suggested that new universities could be built in “cold spots” across the UK where there are no higher education institutions.

He said: “It would be a vivid and practical form of levelling up if priority were given to the cold spots which currently don’t have their own university.

“A starting assumption could be that every major town should have some form of higher education institution.”

The Tory peer highlighted evidence by former prime minister Sir Tony Blair and Lord Adonis to the Times Education Commission in 2021 which suggested that there are 46 towns in England with a population of over 80,000 which have no university, such as Hartlepool, Doncaster, Batley and Blackpool.

Lord Willetts, president of the Resolution Foundation think tank, said: “That at least suggests a possible longlist of candidates.”

Mr Kristel said: “Student choice and opportunity in the last decade has been shaped by a decline in the 18-year-old population, which has created a buyer’s market.

“We see an anticipated 30% increase in demand for higher education and to capitalise on this once-in-a generation opportunity, we need to see an expansion of existing, and creation of new, opportunities across post-secondary education.”

He told PA: “A wider set of choices, including apprenticeships etc, we think is an important part of growing that supply.”

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