University applications, offers and acceptances: trends

A response to the recommendation regarding applications, offer rates and acceptances made by Audit Scotland in its 2016 audit of higher education in Scottish universities.


1. In 2016, Audit Scotland carried out an audit of higher education in Scottish universities. The report,[1] published in 2016, made a number of recommendations for the Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council (SFC), as well as for the wider sector.

2. The report recommended that the Scottish Government and SFC:

'undertake and publish research on trends in applications, offer rates and acceptances for Scottish university places to assess what impact the limits on funded places are having on access to the university system for Scottish and EU students. They should consider the implications of this research for existing policy ambitions and funding approaches'[2]

3. This paper primarily uses data collected by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) on the numbers of Scottish and EU individuals applying to study at Scottish Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), subsequent offers and acceptances. Comprehensive data on applications, offers and acceptances to Scottish HEIs are collected and held by UCAS. However, UCAS does not make all of this statistical information publicly available.

4. The data from UCAS utilised in this response have been obtained from their publicly available reports. These UCAS data are accompanied by statistical information on, and analysis of, other measures such as the 16-20 Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR), to provide a wider picture of the variety of tertiary education and training options available to individuals within Scotland.

5. The inclusion of this additional information is reflective of the complexity of Scotland's higher education system. Students attending university are not the only group enrolled in higher education in Scotland. Alongside students at Scottish universities, a considerable number of full-time higher education students in Scotland study at one of its colleges. Scotland's 16-20 HEIPR of 48.8% in 2016-17 is an indication of the likelihood that a Scottish-domiciled individual will enter higher education, for the first time, between the ages of 16 and 20. (The HEIPR is flexible in that it can be tailored to any age range within the 16-30 bracket if required. For the purposes of this report the HEIPR is being considered for 16-20 year-olds.) This rate has increased year-on-year since 2012-13.

What we know

6. The Scottish Government provides funding to Scottish universities through the SFC. Through the Outcome Agreement process, the SFC allocates this funding to each individual institution for the academic year, which determines the number of places each university can provide. Universities are able to enrol more students than the number of funded places. In 2017-18 the sector enrolled 9% above the level of funded places.[3]

7. SFC allocates costs to degrees by price group[4] and, beyond controlled subject areas,[5] the division of funds to courses within these groups is a matter for each institution to decide.

8. The Scottish Government, through the SFC, invests significant funds in higher education. In 2017-18, this investment totalled over £1 billion for higher education at Scottish universities alone, with further funding provided through the Scottish college budget and for student support. This funding allows the Scottish Government to fulfil its commitment to provide free higher education to eligible students and ensure that access to higher education for eligible Scottish- and EU-domiciled residents remains free and based on the individual's ability to learn, not their ability to pay. The sector also benefits from additional funding from other parts of Government.

9. Thanks to this investment, the number of Scottish-domiciled full-time first degree university entrants has increased. Around 900 additional funded places were available to Scottish- and EU-domiciled students in 2017-18, compared to 2016-17. Around 700 further funded places were available in 2018-19. This includes additional places for students supported by on-going widening access initiatives. Over the last two years, the number of Scottish-domiciled applicants applying to Scottish Universities, via UCAS, has decreased, though applicant numbers are still higher than in 2015. In 2018, the offer rate made to 18 year-old Scottish-domiciled applicants by UK universities increased. As a result we continue to see an increase in Scottish-domiciled students being accepted through UCAS.

10. However, as noted above, higher education in Scotland is not delivered through universities alone and the SFC also provides funding to Scotland's colleges. The number of full-time higher education students studying for recognised qualifications at colleges has grown by 24.0% between 2008-09 and 2017-18. In 2017-18, more Scottish students were enrolled to study higher education at Scottish colleges than accepted places, through UCAS, to study at Scottish universities. 2017-18 also saw over 24,000 full-time higher education students successfully completing recognised qualifications at college.

11. While some students may choose to study further education or higher education at college in lieu of receiving an offer from a university, others opt to study at college as an alternative route to a degree, or to take advantage of a different approach to learning. SFC is working with Scottish colleges and universities to increase the numbers of students who proceed to Scottish universities through articulation. Students following articulation routes complete a higher education qualification at college and then progress to university with credit given for their prior qualifications.[6] Many students from the most challenging backgrounds begin their post-16 education journey in college.

12. As indicated by the growth in Scotland's 16-20 HEIPR, the investment provided by the Scottish Government, through the SFC, has allowed increasing amounts of Scotland's young people to enter into higher education. In 2015-16, the 16-20 year-old HEIPR in Scotland indicated that 47.1% of young people in Scotland are likely to enter higher education for the first time between ages 16 and 20. The rate for English students was lower, at 42.5%. When extended out, the 2015-16 HEIPR estimated that 55.9% of Scottish-domiciled individuals are likely to enter higher education by age 30, compared with 49.3% of English-domiciled individuals. This estimate is supported by higher education enrolment figures. In 2016-17, higher education enrolments at university and college were at a record high level of over 290,000.

13. Comprehensive statistical information about those who were not offered a place, or who choose not to accept an offered place, at a Scottish university is not available. However, given the data available on School Leaver Destinations[7] the Scottish Government is confident that many of these individuals will have gone on to further training, study at college, university elsewhere, or to work. Consideration of other measures provides a more comprehensive picture of the paths taken by young people in Scotland, and further information on this is provided in the attached annex.


14. Key points of note are:

a. The number of Scottish-domiciled applicants through UCAS has increased by over 200 since 2015;

b. The number of EU-domiciled applicants through UCAS has fallen by slightly under 500 since 2015;

c. The number of Scottish-domiciled applicants being accepted to Scottish HEIs has increased each year from 2015, with a record 35,515 students accepted in 2018;

d. The number of EU-domiciled applicants being accepted to Scottish HEIs has fallen by a little over 100 since 2015;

e. The number of applicants being offered a place at UK HEIs (offer rate) has increased since 2015 for 18 year-olds;

f. The number of young people participating in higher education in Scotland (16-20 year-olds) has increased year-on-year and in 2016-17 was 48.8% compared with 42.4% in 2006-07.

15. The Scottish Government's review of the 15-24 learner journey, published May 2018, considered the efficiency and effectiveness of the current education system and identified 17 recommendations for enhancing learners' experience. A number of these recommendations focus on the delivery of higher education, including:

  • Consideration of how the system makes best use of the four-year degree's multiple entry points, to minimise duplication for the learner;
  • Improving articulation between colleges and university; and
  • Supporting leadership across the system to deliver a shared vision for post-15 education.

16. These recommendations are being taken forward with stakeholders across the education system as the learner journey programme commences implementation.

17. In addition, the Scottish Government will continue to work with the SFC, Scotland's universities, and other partners in higher education, to identify further policy initiatives and improvements which can be implemented within the sector. In doing so, we hope to ensure that all students who choose to study in Scotland will receive a world-class education.



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