Thursday, 31 January 2013

Yet another post about UCAS data

UCAS have now published their data for applications to the 15 January deadline. By this stage, almost all school-leavers who are going to apply have applied, and a significant proportion of the Overseas and older applicants have also applied. Because the data are taken with reference to an actual deadline this dataset, unlike the earlier UCAS data releases, provides a reasonably firm basis for taking stock of this years’ recruitment position.
In previous years we got institutional-level data at this time. This year we aren’t. UCAS’ explanation why not makes quite striking reading:

This change has been made following an assessment that publishing the application digest within a cycle could potentially change institutional or applicant behaviour …. In particular, our analysis showed that many institutions may have substantial shares of their applications in common with other individual institutions, increasing the potential for the applications digest to influence behaviour.
Yes, that’s right. They have stopped publishing the data because they could potentially be used by somebody and – even more shocking – because some applicants have applied to more than one institution.
It is natural to look at this year’s numbers primarily in relation to the new fees regime, but there are two specific headwinds that need to be borne in mind. For many years, HE institutions have been looking forward to a demographic dip in school-leavers. That dip is now well under way, and UCAS estimate that it has accounted for 20,000 ‘lost’ 18-year old applicants compared to the peak in the 2009 cycle (or 4,000 since 2012).
Secondly there is the economic context. Whilst the poor state of the British economy continues to make headlines, the picture for employment, especially amongst older people is quite different and much more positive. In this context, UCAS’ figure 10 is a very interesting one.

Whilst the trend across all the age groups is slightly positive, you can see a big uptick in the older age groups especially in the 2010 and 2011 cycles. Now that the 2013 data are in, this looks increasingly like an effect of the economic downturn (when people can’t find jobs, full-time study seems more attractive as an option) which is now wearing off. Whilst the rates amongst older applicants are much lower than amongst 18-year olds, there are obviously a lot more people aged 19-60 than there are aged 18, so this temporary effect has counteracted the falling 18-year old numbers since 2009, but is no longer doing so to anything like the same extent. Since 2010 we have lost about 12,750 applicants aged 21 or more to this effect (probably more by the end of the cycle: whilst almost all 18-year olds will have applied by now, we would expect significant numbers of additional applications after the January deadline from these older applicants).
So these two effects account for essentially all the difference between the peak of demand in the 2011 cycle, and now. Just as when the fee regime was last changed, it seems that demand has bounced right back to the trend after a single year of disruption: the difference is that last time demand came back to a rising trend. This is a pretty remarkable finding if it’s true because English higher education is now incredibly expensive by international standards. But it might be true. UCAS’ analysis of the 2012 cycle also suggests fees made essentially no difference to applicants’ decision-making.
I’ve commented on re-application rates before. Because of the many applicants unplaced last year, and the shift from AAB+ to ABB+, we might have expected to see an increased reapplication rate, especially amongst school-leavers holding ABB. This turns out clearly not to have been the case:
The reapplication rate in 2013 for those unplaced in 2012 holding ‘AAA’ is 87 per cent, for ‘AAB’ 74 per cent, for ‘ABB’ and ‘BBB’ 71 per cent. These reapplication rates are similar to those in the 2012 cycle. There is no substantial divergence in the reapplication rates between 2012 and 2013 across unplaced applicants who were in different groups under the 2012-13 student number control arrangements for most courses at English institutions.
Source: UCAS
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that applicants haven’t yet understood and seized all the opportunities for regulatory arbitrage that exist in the current system. Neither have the institutions, yet.

A version of this post is now up at WonkHE.

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