Graduate Blog

The Changing Nature of University Applications


The undergraduate degrees that sixth formers apply for are constantly changing and universities now offer a greater breadth of courses than ever before, so what effect has this had on the shift in applications? With the media constantly challenging education standards and, in some instances, suggesting A-levels and degrees have become easier, how straightforward is it to earn a place at university?

Every year, UCAS release figures detailing the number of people applying to university, which is then broken down by area of study. The following table illustrates this, as well as the percentage change in applications between 2008 and 2013.

UCAS Applications by Year

As you can see, despite the controversial recent increase in tuition fees, the overall number of people applying to go to university has, in fact, gone up by 15.1% since 2008. Even more striking though is the rate at which certain degrees have increased and decreased in popularity in just five years.

The most notable growth is in the medicinal and veterinary subject groups, which have seen 59.5% and 47.6% rises respectively. Subjects allied to medicine, in particular, have seen staggering increases, from 60,213 to 96,015 applications. This is a reflection of not only the incredibly competitive nature of this sector – it has always been notoriously tough to get onto these courses – but also the massive influx of nursing applicants.

The Telegraph recently reported that nursing now receives the most applications of any individual course, and even more detailed UCAS figures wholeheartedly support this. Despite the only marginal increase in places available, the number of people applying for undergraduate nursing courses has increased by a phenomenal 107.5% in the last five years, more than doubling since 2008.

As you can imagine, this has made earning that elusive university place even more difficult than it was previously. Now, only one in nine nursing applicants will be successful, meaning it has risen to become one of the most competitive courses in the country, with only pre-clinical medicine and dentistry now more oversubscribed. While this may make for daunting reading for potential applicants, it can only be a good thing for the industry. Universities will inevitably look to increase their number of places in the coming years, which will help combat the lack of nurses in UK hospitals – according to the Nursing Standard Journal, 40% of nurses believe that there are not currently enough staff to provide a safe level of care to patients.

But what about the other side of the coin? Many subject areas have seen a drop in applications, none more so than mathematics. They had been steadily rising, before a massive reduction in 2012, and have seen an overall 64.9% decrease in the last five years. This, combined with the fact that only half of pupils achieve a grade C or above in maths at GCSE level, could be a worrying sign for the subject. However, with vocational degrees on the rise, this shunning of more traditional courses is only set to increase.

So why has their popularity skyrocketed? The aforementioned increase in tuition fees means that school and college leavers are paying more and more attention to employability. Now that they will be in more debt than ever before after their three (or sometimes more) years of study, students need to know that there will be a job for them after they leave university. Young people are weighing up the investment and potential returns of a degree, rather than just going to university for the experience.

In her article for The Huffington Post, Anne Whitehouse, Buckinghamshire New University’s Head of Marketing, argues that vocational degrees have “come of age”. She believes that, even though more traditional courses may be suited to those who don’t have a specific career in mind, vocational degrees offer substantial advantages and are no longer considered second best.

She says, “Choosing a vocational degree doesn’t mean that you’re sacrificing academic quality. Whilst you can learn a certain amount through case studies and theoretical investigation, real understanding – and employability – comes from making sure the academic basis of your study is supplemented by the opportunity to apply your knowledge to workplace situations.”

Whether you choose to embark on a vocational course or not, taking a look at the UCAS figures for the area of study you’re considering may still be really worthwhile. For those that don’t have a specific degree in mind, taking into account the number of applicants per place and the employability options after university is most definitely worthwhile. After all, it might just make the difference and get you an offer from your first choice university.

About the Author

Daniel Yeo Daniel Yeo

My name’s Dan and I’m a recent graduate of Lancaster University, where I achieved a 2:1 in English Literature and Creative Writing. I’ve been working in the digital PR and marketing industry since then and regularly post about various student issues.

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