UK University Acceptance Rates Slide: First Drop in 5 Years Amidst Post-pandemic Ebb


For the first time in half a decade, the acceptance of 18-year-old students into UK universities has seen a drop. This decline follows a surge in applications that occurred during the pandemic, which has now dwindled. It’s noteworthy that around 85% of applicants achieved acceptance in both the former and current year.

A more detailed observation reveals a shift in the acceptance pattern, with a reduced number of students getting enrolled into their first choice of universities. However, the silver lining lies in the increased number of students who made it into their second-choice universities, or bagged spots through the clearing process.

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In a non-surprising but still disheartening revelation, it has been found that this year once again saw a downturn in top-level A-level results. The grading standards in England have been restored to their pre-pandemic norms, which has reflected in this year’s academic performance.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), known for its precise figures, revealed a slight descent in successful applications. The number fell from 275,390 in 2022 to 270,350 this year with 18-year olds. This data presents the first dip since 2018, although the current figures surpass the pre-Covid years.

In tandem with the reduced acceptance rates, the applications from 18-year-olds across the UK have also seen a decline this year, from 323,290 in 2022 to 318,390 in 2023. As stated by Ucas, these figures hint at a “return to normal growth” after the pandemic-induced application surge.

This lowered demand, however, wouldn’t have impacted all universities at the same level, though concrete data supporting this claim are yet to be made available.

Jessie Owers, an 18-year old currently exploring societies at Cardiff Metropolitan University, is immensely grateful for Ucas’s clearing system. A substantial downward shift in her grades prompted her to reconsider other universities she originally had an interest in.

During the ongoing pandemic, there was a noticeable increase in teenagers applying for university. Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, believes this upward trend could be due to the limited options available to young people during the COVID years.

It’s important to mention that the opportunities for overseas travel have been significantly curtailed in 2020 and 2021. This factor could have reduced the likelihood of students taking gap years.

The figures for this year reveal that only 35.6% of all 18-year-olds in the UK have been accepted into universities, which is the lowest percentage since 2019.

Further dissection of the Ucas data reveals these key points:

  • The number of students getting accepted into their firm choice of university fell from 217,380 to 204,730.
  • The students who were accepted into their insurance choice rose slightly from 22,520 to 26,160.
  • The students accepted onto a course through clearing went from 33,280 to 38,140 – this shows an increase of more than 15% than the pre-pandemic times.

Highlighted by Ucas, 32% of students who secured a place through clearing decided against their firm choices. This is in contrast to the 30% who missed their grades and had to resort to this mechanism.

Bill Watkin suggests this trend could have resulted from the “mismatch between predicted grades and actual grades,” brought about by teacher-assessed grades’ use in 2020 and 2021.

One positive note in the report is that the number of international students from outside the EU fell by only 0.9%, remaining 25% higher than pre-pandemic figures. Similarly, the number of 18-year-old applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds too fell, but the current figures are almost 20% higher than those recorded in 2019.

The goal now, as explicated by Sander Kristel, the interim chief executive of Ucas, is to ensure efforts are continued to close this gap in participation from those in disadvantaged backgrounds, apart from promoting the allure of UK higher education across the globe.

While Universities UK acknowledges the “continued strong appeal of university,” it also urges that the industry make continuous efforts to propel social mobility. It’s also worth noting that the clearing process remains open till October 17, allowing for an ample number of opportunities via 23,000 courses still available.