Black and Asian students won places at prestigious UK universities at record levels in 2021, alongside increasing numbers of students from all backgrounds, and the chief executive of the Ucas admissions service has said there could be one million applications for places by 2026.
The number of Black students who accepted places at selective institutions, such as those in the Russell Group of leading research universities, rose by 19% in a year, from 3,775 in 2020 to just under 4,500, according to figures released by Ucas.
The record numbers of applications and acceptances were driven by the rise in higher A-levels awarded in 2021 after the government’s decision to cancel exams and replace them with teacher-assessed grades.
Ucas said the number of applicants achieving the top A-level grades almost doubled compared with 2020 – up from 12,735 to 19,595 – and was nearly quadruple the pre-pandemic levels of 5,655 in 2019. “As a likely result, 103,010 UK young people were accepted at higher-tariff providers, up 11% from 92,650 in 2020,” it noted.
The boost in results and rising numbers of 18-year-olds in the UK population saw more applicants awarded places across the board, with 492,005 students accepted on to a course.
The proportion of school leavers seeking further study continued to rise, with 38% of 18-year-olds living in the UK going on to university – up by more than four percentage points compared with 2019’s figure. This suggests that the public’s appetite for higher education shows no sign of abating.
Clare Marchant, the chief executive of Ucas, said: “This year sees the return to exams, and is the second year of what will be a decade of growth of 18-year-olds in the UK population. As we are set to hit one million applicants by 2026, it will be even more important that the higher education admissions system meets the needs of students in this increasingly competitive environment.”
The data also showed that nearly 21% of students receiving free school meals were accepted on to a university or college course last year. Ucas said this was the highest rate on record.
Kevin Gilmartin, the post-16 specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We are delighted to see the increase in the numbers of students being accepted at university, including a welcome rise in those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“The increases have come despite the whole application cycle taking place during the pandemic, reflecting the tremendous efforts made by school and college leaders and their staff in guiding students through the process.”
However, applicants from more privileged backgrounds continued to apply and gain places at even higher rates than in previous years. The number of applicants from the wealthiest backgrounds increased by 15%, while those from poorer areas rose more slowly, by 10%.
The proportion of white students gaining places at higher-tariff universities also rose steeply, up by 12.5% to nearly 75,600.
Partly as a result, the gap in participation rates between disadvantaged pupils and their peers continued to widen. In 2012, the difference between the number of acceptances for students on free school meals and those who weren’t stood at 14.5 percentage points. But last year this had risen to more than 20 percentage points.
This year’s students could see further strike disruption on campus, after a proposal by the University and College Union to reevaluate the pension scheme at the heart of one dispute was rejected by employers. Universities UK dismissed the proposal, saying it “does not appear to be a serious attempt to reach agreement”.