Record number of disadvantaged students aim high and apply to most selective university degrees

The number of UK 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds applying to the most selective universities and courses is the highest on record.
Posted Wed 25 October 2023 - 23:01

Today UCAS publishes its first statistical release of the 2024 undergraduate cycle, detailing applicant numbers for higher education courses with an early October deadline, which includes applicants to medicine, dentistry, and veterinary degrees, as well as for all courses at the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford. 

The number of UK 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas (POLAR 4 quintile 1) is at a record high, with 3,160 students having applied, up by 7% from the 2023 cycle (2,950). 17,080 of the most advantaged (POLAR4 quintile 5) have applied this year compared with 16,720 last year, up by 2%. 

A total of 72,740 have applied to start an undergraduate course with an October application deadline in 2024, down by 2% from last year (74,090), but up by 6% from 2020 (the October 2019 application deadline, for autumn 2020 entry) – the last pre-pandemic cycle (68,690).  

In total, there have been 39,310 UK 18-year-olds apply by the deadline, the second highest number on record. This is up by 2% since 2023 (38,660) and up by 11% since 2020 (35,290).  

Other key findings

  • The total number of UK 18-year-olds who have applied to medicine is 11,750, which is down by 7% since last year (12,700), but up by 8% since the October deadline for 2020 entry (10,930). 
  • The number of UK students aged 35 and over applying to medicine for the first time (230) is up from 170 in 2023 (+31%), down from the record of 260 in 2021. This is the largest year on year percentage increase since 2021 (up 39%). 
  • There has been a 18% decrease in the total number of UK 19-year-old applicants – which is 5,580 this year, but down from 6,770 in 2023.  
  • The total number of international students (all ages) who have applied is 20,850, which is down from 2023 (20,970) but up from 2019 (20,280). 
  • China remains the largest source market for international applicants; however the number of applicants from China is down 1% from 2023 (but up 31% against the October deadline for 2020 entry). The USA and Singapore have had the largest growth in applicants since last year, with applicants from USA increasing by 9% and Singapore by 6%. 
  • There has been a 6% increase in UK domiciled applicants declaring receipt of free school meals. This is in the context of rising numbers of pupils in England receiving free school meals.  

Interim CEO at UCAS, Sander Kristel, said: “It’s encouraging to see a record number of young students from the most disadvantaged areas aiming high with their choices for next year. The narrowing of the disadvantage gap, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, shows the effort we have made as a sector, to ensure everyone in society can aspire to study the most competitive courses.  

“UCAS is available to support students throughout the cycle, and the team are on hand to guide students with their next steps as we approach the equal consideration deadline for all other courses on 31 January 2024.  

“It is also important to highlight that the UCAS Hub now gives students the opportunity to find the most relevant apprenticeship opportunities for them alongside degree courses, and we’re ready to support applicants to discover and decide between their options all in one place for the first time.” 

View the 16 October deadline application data in our interactive dashboard


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Notes for editors

UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, is an independent charity, and the UK's shared admissions service for higher education.

Our services support young people making post-18 choices, as well as mature learners, by providing information, advice, and guidance to inspire and facilitate educational progression to university, college, or a degree apprenticeship.

We manage almost three million applications, from around 700,000 people each year, for full-time undergraduate courses at over 380 universities and colleges across the UK.

We also provide a wide range of research, consultancy and advisory services to schools, colleges, careers services, professional bodies, and employers, including apprenticeships. We’re a successful and fast-growing organisation, which helps hundreds of thousands of people every year. We're committed to delivering a first-class service to all our customers — they're at the heart of everything we do.

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