The Global Education Specialists


Why Is There a Decline In University Applications?

Wed 15 Feb 2017 < Back to listing

You might have heard the news that less people are applying for university these days. But why is this? Should you be reconsidering uni? We investigate the topic… Read the quote from Geoff Webster (Managing Director of CEG Digital, part of the Cambridge Education Group.) about the increasing demand for distance learning from international students in the post-Brexit world.

What’s Going On with University Applications?

what's going on
image via tenor

According to the latest UCAS data, there are 30,000 less people applying for university this year, a 5% drop on last year’s figures. Ok, this doesn’t sound like an awful lot (especially when you put into perspective that 564,190 people have applied), but with thousands of universities competing for your attention (and money), it’s a fairly big chunk of students to lose, especially since applications haven’t dropped since 2012.


Why Are University Applications Down?

There’s loads of theories as to why less people are applying to uni at the moment. From money and Brexit, to a lack of students applying for specific subjects.

Here’s more detail on some of the key themes:



image via giphy

One of the main theories is that university is simply becoming too expensive, especially as tuition fees have recently risen to a maximum of £9,250. Not only this, but the government’s recent decision to scrap maintenance grants and turn them into repayable loans could also have put off a few students.

We asked Hattie Wrixton, co-founder of, (a site that provides advice and guidance about university alternatives), for her opinion on the money issue. She told us,

“When tuition fees rise to £9,000 a year, any normal person would expect value for money. One of university’s many selling points is the social life and opportunity to build a lasting network. Despite the importance of gaining personable skills, at nine grand, it seems like an expensive way to make friends.

 “With the rise of apprenticeships and uni alternatives, young ambitious people are beginning to realise the value of learning skills on the job whilst earning a wage.”



image via giphy

The UK’s decision to leave the EU is already having an impact on student numbers as there’s been a 7% decline in the number of EU applicants.  The biggest EU application losses comes from:

  • Ireland (17.9%)
  • Romania (15.1%)
  • Italy (11.4%)
  • Bulgaria and Germany (10.3%)

Although it’s not all bad news for EU student applications, as Portugal, Lithuania, Norway and Denmark all saw an increase in the number of student applications.

So, what can universities do to attract more EU and international students post-Brexit? Geoff Webster, Managing Director of CEG Digital, part of the Cambridge Education Group told us,

“There is increasing demand for distance learning from international students, particularly in emerging markets. These might be mature students, professionals in work who want to up-skill, and those who cannot undertake the financial cost of a year abroad or those unable to obtain a visa. 

"Universities need to consider ways to access these students. Sufficiently large institutions will be able to do this themselves, but other institutions – or those with a smaller appetite for risk – may look to invest in public/private partnerships to share the risk and enable access to these new markets. The partnering model seems an ideal way for universities to dip their toes into these new, exciting waters without taking inordinate financial or reputational risks.” 


Less Mature Students

image via giphy

While the number of 18-year old students remains high, there’s been an 18% drop in the number students over the age of 25, which has no doubt contributed a lot to the decline in applications.  

Mary Curnock Cook, UCAS Chief Executive says this is likely because of, “strong young recruitment in recent years depleting the pool of potential mature applicants, and probably also reflecting increased employment, the higher minimum wage, and more apprenticeship opportunities.”


Less Nursing Students

image via giphy

There’s no denying that the NHS is in a bit of a pickle at the moment. There’s striking, funding cuts, and possibly the biggest reason for the decline in nursing applications, the NHS bursary being completely scrapped and replaced by a maintenance loan.

So unsurprisingly, there’s been a decline in the number of nursing applications, (23% less to be exact) as more and more people choose a different path.  In fact, “About half the fall in nursing applicants is mirroring the fall in non-nursing applicants from older age groups,” according to Mary Curnock Cook.

Our own insights data backs up the UCAS findings, as even though course searches are up on Whatuni by 4%, searches for nursing courses are actually down by 8.09%!

Obviously, many organisations within the nursing sector are concerned about the decline in nursing students, in particular the Royal College of Nursing (RCN). Janet Davies, Chief Executive and General Secretary at the RCN, said:  “We warned the Government the removal of student funding would see a sharp drop in nursing applications. These figures confirm our worst fears.

 “The nursing workforce is in crisis and if fewer nurses graduate in 2020, it will exacerbate what is already an unsustainable situation.

 “The outlook is bleak – fewer EU nurses are coming to work in the UK following the Brexit vote, and by 2020 nearly half the workforce will be eligible for retirement.

 “With 24,000 nursing vacancies in the UK, the government needs to take immediate action to encourage more applicants by reinstating student funding and investing in student education – the future of nursing, and the NHS, is in jeopardy.”


High Expectations

image via tumblr

Some universities haven’t actually been affected by the decline. Applications to high tariff universities (like the Russell Group ones) have actually seen a 1% increase in applications.

The decline has actually come from universities that accept middle and lower UCAS tariffs. While the middle tariff unis have taken a 5% hit, the lower tariff universities have seen a 10% decrease in applications. These universities are also taking hits from the lack of nursing and mature student applications too, as low tariff universities are more likely to teach both of these groups.

Could this decline be because students are simply applying for higher tariff universities, even if they don’t necessary have the right grades for it? Or are too many students simply choosing to leave education rather than attend a low tariff institution?


People Just Aren’t Applying Yet

image via tenor

Of course, there’s also the fact that although the UCAS deadline was January 15th, universities are still accepting applications, right up until clearing in August. So some of those 30,000 could just be running late with their applications!

In fact, Mary Curnock Cook, has added that, “Although the January deadline has passed, it is not too late to apply and we would expect around another 100,000 people to apply to higher education through the remainder of this cycle.”


It's Not All Bad News

good news
image via giphy

Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom. The number of applications from 18-year old students in England has actually risen. In Northern Ireland and Wales there has been a decrease in applications, but it’s only by a small amount, and the numbers from Scotland haven’t changed at all.


What Could Universities Do?

image via tenor

In order to attract more students into higher education, universities have a few things they could do...

Be More Flexible

One of the suggestions we heard came from Dr Philip Hallam, Vice-Chancellor of Arden University, who believes offering more flexible courses to older students is the way to go. He told us,

"The needs of a fifth of working adults interested in higher education are not being met by the traditional HE sector, according to our research. 

"The established path to getting a degree can be prohibitively expensive and inflexible. We need to do it differently, with a combination of fully-supported online degrees plus courses that provide a mix of in-classroom and web learning – and that’s what Arden University is doing."


Keep Mature Students Happy

With so many mature students turning their back on higher education, universities also need to make sure they’re as attractive to students as possible. Bob Cozens, Director of Admissions at the University of Bedfordshire told us how they make sure mature students are as happy as possible on their campus. 

“Mature students are a vital part of campus life here at the University of Bedfordshire with over 50% of our students’ population aged over 21; allowing generations to mix and bringing their life experiences to campus.

“We put our appeal down to our investment in student focussed facilities, in providing top quality teaching and our decision to embed employability into the curriculum.

“We recognise mature students need a different kind of support to the traditional 18 year old. Part-time study is available with flexible study options to fit around work and family commitments. We also offer a foundation year for the majority of courses providing non-traditional learners the support they need to progress and succeed”


Make Sure Course Content is Relevant

Then there’s of course the content that students are being taught at university. Kenny Nicholl, vice president of Canvas EMEA, told us he feels that universities should make sure their courses are equipping students with workplace skills and offer them the possibility of work experience if they want to attract more applicants. Kenny told us,

"The majority of students are looking for courses developed in close collaboration with employers and with the ability to work directly with them so they can learn these essential skills that employers are looking for. A course that puts them in the best position to get a job upon graduation is really important."

Kenny added that having access to the latest technology in a university environment was key to student’s knowledge. He added "For many students, having the right technology in place can help bridge this gap. At Canvas, we’ve seen first-hand how technology like ours can enable students to learn anytime, anywhere, just as they would do in the real world.

When students are empowered and encouraged to take control of their own learning, we believe a more enthused, engaged and accountable generation will enter the workforce – narrowing the skills gap and fuelling industries and economies with the best and brightest talent."


Student Stories

We asked several people who hadn’t gone to university for their stories, from why they chose not to go to where they are today and if they regret that decision…and here they are:


Why didn’t you go to uni?

Coming from a lower class benefits family background uni was very much out of my price range. This was a decade ago but even then the thought of dropping upwards of £10k onto studying at a uni was seen as just too much, including the idea of getting student loans (being that much in debt also being unimaginable) and grants were not expected to achievable regardless of merit. The council estate community as a whole felt similar and it was better to just settle for a simple job than even bother trying to get to and afford uni.


If uni had been cheaper, would you have gone?

I definitely would of applied and aimed to get in, going to uni seemed the normal state of things for those who wanted to get a step up in life and look for a good profession.


What did you do instead?

A mixture of vocational studies in a further education adult learning college (Southwark College to be precise), this was mostly made up of studying computer and network engineering with each year also having an additional subject (accounting and then counselling).


Do you regret not going to uni?

Partially, the experience of going and learning a profession from an educational angle does feel missing but I do not dislike that I went to college and it definitely shaped me and set me on the path I’m on now.



“I decided that there wasn't any course I was really passionate for and until I was absolutely sure on one I didn't want to spend all the money. I'm now a Microsoft trained software consultant working in a gold MS partnership, way ahead in my field for my age because I made the choice not to go to uni. I don't regret it one bit and it's never held me back job-wise.”


Eshé Brown

Eshe Brown

If university had been cheaper I most certainly would have gone but in hindsight, I would have chosen the wrong the course for me. It's only now 9 years into work that I've realised what I really love doing. If you know what you want to do and you need a degree then I would say University is the right path but if you're unsure as I am it's not something you have to rush into. I can go to university as an adult and I'll probably get more from it because I'll be laser focussed and disciplined enough to study.

I've been employed by Propellernet (a Digital Marketing Agency based in Brighton) for almost 9 years. I joined the company as an intern, aged 19, straight from college.

I thought I would just work there on a gap year before taking up a place on a Fashion Marketing course at Manchester Metropolitan University. However, I soon realised there were great career prospects at Propellernet and if I worked hard, I could rise through the company without getting into large sums of debt - which was putting me off university somewhat.

After a year, I moved from a paid advertising role into a PR role, which suited me much better as I'd always enjoyed English and being creative. Working with media and bloggers day-to-day inspired me to start up my own food blog, which I've had for almost 3 years now. 

Whatever you do, be it university, or going straight into work, that's the key. No one is going to hand you your dream job on a plate. It's up to you to carve it out and work towards it.


Should I Reconsider Applying to University?

image via giphy

Of course, university isn’t for everything, but if you want to go to university, then don’t be put off by the decline in applications, especially as it’s not all bad news!

In fact the number of 18 year old students applying to university remains high, and application rates for disadvantaged groups is also rising, and with 564,190 students already applying for uni this year, you certainly won’t be alone on campus!

Also, this decline could actually work out in your favour. Because universities are having a tough time recruiting, you’re likely to have more choice and opportunity than before, with less competition from other students, as well as universities competing against each other to offer you the best course so you choose them.

Worried about Brexit? Don’t worry about that either. The government has promised that any students from within the EU that start university next year will still receive full funding throughout their studies.

< Back to listing