top universities in the uk
Students at the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham (LAET) receive their A-Level results in north London on August 10, 2021. Source: Justin Tallis/AFP

Things are getting tougher for international A Level students looking to join top universities in the UK. 

In a blog published on the Higher Education Policy Institute, Chief Executive of UCAS Clare Marchant. shared that there has been an upward trend in the number of UK students — projected to increase 2-3% every year — applying to higher tariff universities. 

“2022 is the second year in an upward trend in the number of 18-year-olds in the UK’s population that’s projected to continue throughout this decade,” wrote Marchant. “The pandemic also accelerated demand, with a higher percentage of students continuing with their schooling and wanting to progress to university, and higher application rates from mature applicants.”

Marchant also noted that the number of international students — especially those outside the EU — has been rising. As a result of these factors, 2022 now holds the record for the highest number of applicants and applications. It currently sees 667,000 applicants making almost three million applications. 

Looking at the current trend, Marchant predicts that 2026 could likely see one million applicants. 

top universities in the uk

A man wearing a protective face covering walks past halls of residence for students in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, north-east England. Source: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP

Top universities in the UK are making fewer offers

With the significant rise in the number of applicants, universities and colleges in the UK are exercising more restraint in their offer-making. 

“This means the overall offer rate is 66.4% compared to 72.0% in 2019, and this is also an indication of future cycles as universities and colleges adapt to having more applicants,” noted Marchant.

Meanwhile, the offer rate for higher tariff universities is seeing a significant drop — 55.1% down from 60.5% last year.

There are 117,000 18-year-old students currently holding offers from higher UCAS tariff universities — a decrease from 2021’s 121,000, but an increase from 106,000 in 2019 and 111,000 in 2020. 

Competitive programmes are becoming harder to pursue too — 15.6% of medicine and dentistry programme applicants have received an offer, down from 20.4% in 2021. 

Despite all this, Marchant predicts that more applicants may receive offers from their firm choice university in the summer. 

“It is also worth considering that offers may have been made in a much more precise way (in some cases, more admissions teams will be supplementing UCAS information with additional assessments such as interviews and admissions tests) than in previous years, resulting in fewer offers. If this is the case, then offers have been made with high confidence that applicants will succeed on the course,” wrote Marchant.

She further highlighted that out of all applicants, the reduced offer rates have least impacted applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds: “We’ve already seen record numbers of applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (POLAR Q1) this year. Offer rates for applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (Q1 and Q2) have fallen the least – from 78.8% last year to 75.1%.”  

Having said that, there is still a gap between the possibility of the most and least advantaged applicants getting an offer. According to Marchant, an 18-year-old living in an advantaged area is 2.86 times more likely to secure a firm choice than someone else in a disadvantaged area. 

top universities in the uk

Students walk through Cambridge University in Cambridge, east of England. Source: Tolga Akmen/AFP

UK government working closely with the higher education sector

According to The Guardian, a UK Department for Education spokesperson shared that the government is working closely with the higher education sector amidst the increased competition to ensure that “students are able to progress to high-quality courses that lead to good outcomes.”

“We want all pupils with the ability and talent to study at university to be able to do so, and last year a record number of students secured places at university, including a record number of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds,” said the spokesperson.