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Number of students planning to start university rises amid fears of deferrals

Chris Radburn/PA Wire

By Eleanor Busby, PA Education Correspondent

The number of prospective students who have accepted an offer to start on a UK degree course this autumn has risen despite disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Ucas figures suggest.

Fewer applicants have opted for a deferred university place compared to this time last year, according to the UK’s admissions service for higher education.

It comes amid fears that significant numbers of applicants would postpone studying at university this year after institutions unveiled plans to use a “blended” learning approach, with a mix of online and face-to-face classes.

Some universities are considering making students live in a “bubble” with people on the same courses to limit social mixing, while other institutions are looking to hold virtual freshers’ week events.

But the latest Ucas figures – which come after last week’s deadline for most students to make a final decision on offers – suggest that many applicants have not yet decided to abandon their plans.

The latest figures show that there are 20,690 applicants holding a firm offer with a deferred start date, compared to 20,840 at the same point in 2019 – which amounts to a 1% drop.

The number of applicants currently holding a firm offer for an immediate start in September has also increased by nearly 6,000 – from 494,530 at this point last year to 500,340.

However, prospective students who have applied to study in the autumn can request to defer at any point in the application cycle as there is no set deadline from Ucas.

Figures also show that the number of applicants from outside the EU who have opted to defer their study plans at UK universities this year has risen by 21%, from 940 in 2019 to 1,140, amid the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the number of EU applicants currently holding a firm offer for an immediate start in September has decreased by 6% from 36,700 last year to 34,530.

Ucas said it has decided to release the headline offer-acceptance statistics for the first time “to provide the clearest possible picture of students’ behaviour” at this point in the application cycle.

On the latest figures, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), said: “I think UK school leavers are voting with their feet, and they are acting very rationally because the alternatives – like gap years and finding a job – are less good than usual.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said he could understand why some students may wish to defer their place amid the disruption, but he added that he did not believe there was “anything to be gained if it ends up with them sitting at home for a year.”

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK (UUK), added: “It is very positive to see that the number of students planning to start university this autumn is on the rise, especially those from the most disadvantaged areas, and that the number choosing to defer has fallen from this time last year.”

“University remains an excellent choice for students. Despite the disruption caused by Covid-19, students can expect a high-quality experience this autumn with most universities planning to deliver teaching, student support and social activities in-person.”

Last week, a UUK survey suggested that the majority of British universities are planning to offer in-person teaching and face-to-face social opportunities this autumn.

Clare Marchant, Ucas’ chief executive, added that the numbers would be “welcome news for universities and colleges”, and she said it shows that announcements on the blended learning approach that most institutions are planning to deliver have been “building confidence ahead of the start of term”.