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Record number of students due to start degrees in UK amid fears of deferrals

By Eleanor Busby
A record number of students are set to start degree courses in the UK this autumn despite fears about significant deferrals amid the coronavirus pandemic, figures suggest.

Overall, a total of 515,650 people, both from the UK and overseas, have confirmed places – up 4% on the same point last year, according to data published by the university admissions service.

The number of overseas students, from outside the EU, due to take up places has risen by 9% to 44,300 despite concerns that travel restrictions would deter international students from studying in the UK.

But the number of EU students accepted has fallen by 2%, with 29,630 confirmed, Ucas figures show.

A record 28,030 school leavers from the most disadvantaged backgrounds across the UK have also been accepted into university – up 8% on the equivalent point last year, according to the analysis.

This means more than a fifth (22.5%) of all young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are due to start a degree – a new high for four weeks after results day, the university admissions service said.

The report shows the number of students accepted on full-time undergraduate courses as of September 10. In recent years, around 95% of students have been placed by this point in the process.

It comes after the Government called on universities to prioritise students from disadvantaged backgrounds for admission “where possible” following the U-turn on A-level grades.

Institutions were urged to honour offers to students who met their conditions after Ofqual allowed results to be based on schools’ estimated grades, rather than its algorithm, four days after results day.

Accepted applicants from the UK are up by 4% to 441,720 – and when looking at only 18-year-olds, more than a third (36.4%) of all young people are due to start a course – a new high for this point in the year.

But Ucas data shows that the proportion of applicants with a confirmed deferred place has only risen slightly amid the pandemic – from 5.4% last year to 5.7% this year.

It comes as students have begun arriving on campuses across the country, and have been warned not to attend large parties due to the ban on social gatherings of more than six people in England.

In many institutions, seminars and tutorials are due to be taught in-person – with a range of social-distancing measures – while freshers’ week activities and large lectures are mainly virtual.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “It was always clear that domestic demand would be up, despite the reduction in 18-year olds, because the alternatives to more education are so poor this year.

“It was also always likely that EU numbers would be down, given the Brexit uncertainties and shenanigans. No one predicted such a big increase in non-EU international students and we have to wait to see if they will all actually arrive and then stay the course.

“But it is a great testament to the underlying strength of our higher education sector, as well as a reflection of the improved migration regime and rising geopolitical tensions between China and the US, that so many people still want to come and study at our fantastic institutions.”

Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas, said: “Covid-19 has not dampened the appeal of UK higher education.

Overall, the total number of accepted applicants is up 4%, to a record 515,650, because of more home (also up 4%) and international applicants with a confirmed place.

“The significant increase of more than 3,580 additional students from outside the EU accepted comes alongside a much smaller decline of 720 EU students from within the EU.

“Enrolment is currently taking place with universities and colleges implementing Covid safety measures, and many will cautiously be waiting to see the proportion of international students who take up their places this year.”

She added: “As students are starting their new courses across the country, these numbers confirm the enduring appeal and welcome of our outstanding universities and colleges.

“They, along with schools, Ucas, and organisations across the entire education sector, have worked tirelessly in recent months to provide reassurance and flexibility to applicants, and ensure access to the best opportunities possible.”

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