Unconditional offers prompt strong early growth in 18 year old entry rates

Unconditional offers prompt strong early growth in 18 year old entry rates

18 year old entry rates are the key health statistic for the sector. Entry rates ahead of A level results for 18 year olds were sharply up last week, especially in Wales. Mark Corver on what the data says about why they are increasing so strongly, and whether we can expect these increases to continue once A level results day arrives.

UCAS’ data release for Scottish results day gives a picture of entry rates for 18 year olds in England, Northern Ireland and Wales before the A level results are known. Entry rates are up in all these countries, by (proportionally) 16% in England, more in NI (though small numbers) and getting on for 40% in Wales. This continues recent trends and consequently ‘early entry’ is now at a non-trivial level: 8.6% of the English 18 year old population already had their place at university secured last week. This is around a quarter of all English 18 year olds who will eventually enter this cycle.

There are two main reasons how 18 year olds get placed ahead of A level results: they satisfy conditional offers through qualifications already awarded by that point, or they have set as their firm choice an unconditional offer. Last month UCAS published some summary statistics on unconditional offers that were set as firm in 2018 by 18 year olds from England, Northern Ireland and Wales. We’ve combined these with the entry rate data to look at whether this early entry is through unconditional or conditional routes.

Unsurprisingly the analysis points firmly to the growth in early entry being down to unconditional offers. By our estimates, 6.3% of the 18 year old population in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will have gained their place via an unconditional offer this year, up from 4.4% last year. Given the pattern in the national early entry rates, it seems likely there has been a marked uptake of unconditional offers by applicants in Wales, driving the big increases in the early entry rate seen there.

The entry rate through confirmation of conditional offers has dropped appreciably  this year. Typically it would be BTEC students who are confirmed at this point, so that fall might represent some of the changes (in overall numbers or award timing) to the BTEC cohort this year, or perhaps reflect a large share of the increase in the uptake of unconditional offers being down to BTEC students.

Clearly the strong proportional growth in these early entry rates, driven by unconditional offers, has an element of ‘bringing forward’ entry rates from A level results day. So we’re not going to see a 16% proportional increase in the English 18 year old rate on A level results day. English 18 year old entry rates have been growing, albeit at a slowing rate in recent years. Given the activity in the sector this year it is very likely that the entry rate on results day will increase again. The scale of the population reduction this year in England (over 2%) means the entry rate on results day will need to increase by around 0.6-0.7 percentage points just to keep the number of 18 year olds placed that day the same, and will need be up by around 0.8 points by the end of the cycle to maintain numbers.

Increases in the entry rate of this level are historically normal, but would be quite demanding given the recent context. It would be substantially larger than the increase seen on results day last year, and around three times larger than the increase in the application rate this cycle.  So the acceptance rate would have to rise substantially to deliver this.

The strong start to the 18 year old entry rate this year shouldn’t be taken as sign that it will leap ahead come A level results day, and with a demanding rise needed simply to keep numbers level it will be a key statistic to watch throughout Clearing.