Placed Rate Falling for First Time in a Decade in UK

Placed rate in decline: no need for alarm.

 Placed rate in decline: no need for alarm.

The latest UCAS data shows the headline placed rate falling for the first time in almost a decade. If this signals students are turning away from HE it would be (very) bad news for future recruitment. Mark Corver uses the data to see if all is as it appears (it isn’t, universities are still highly attractive).

One of the core statistics of the whole UCAS system is the placed rate. This is simply the proportion of people who apply who actually get in. In the days when demand reliably outstripped supply it picked up the name ‘acceptance rate’, reflecting that it was mostly measuring whether universities would choose to ‘accept’ a hopeful applicant or not. With some parts of the system now having more supply than demand, it is now more of a measure of whether hopeful universities can convert applicant interest into a recruited student. We prefer the more neutral term ‘placed rate’. Here we define it as main scheme applicants (using the June deadline totals) who have been placed (any route) by the end of ‘day 14’ after results. All these data cover the world of full-time undergraduate admissions only.

Universities who calculated that the headline placed rate was down in the latest UCAS data published on Friday might have been worried. And rightly so. Recently the sector has relied on increasing the placed rate to get planned growth from static or falling aggregated applicant demand. The placed rate has increased every year since 2010, so even the slight fall this year represents a material change. And with demographic pressures on aggregate demand intensifying, losing the growth trend comes at the worse possible time for recruitment.

If it signals that universities are starting to falter in converting interest to recruitment, then an already very tough outlook darkens. If the gains in the placed rate achieved since 2012 were lost, recruitment would plunge by a further 30,000+. This would cause material damage to the sector.

But, we don’t think the placed rate is sending that signal this year. To find out why a deeper look at the data is needed.

The placed rates for students from all countries of the UK have increased this year. In England and Wales, mostly because of vigorous competitive recruitment. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, more due to the falling population easing the impact of number controls on places.

The placed rates for EU applicants are down a fraction, and those for outside the EU more substantially (over a percentage point, completely undoing the hard-won gains of the past two cycles). Both these groups are showing higher than usual levels of applicants still holding offers at this point. These might be enough to tip EU placed rates back into growth, but the fall in international placed rates is likely to persist. This is a concern for the sector. For these students the placed rate is almost purely a measure of the attractiveness of offers made from UK HE compared to opportunities in other countries. International applicants are the only seemingly reliable segment of growing demand at the moment, a vital balance to the unfavourable UK demographics. But how low their placed rate is compared to UK students, and the fall this year, is a reminder of how tough competition is this segment.

With the the majority of these placed rates for applicants going up, albeit slightly, you might well think the overall rate would go up too. Your instinct here would be absolutely right. With this pattern of changes the overall rate should have gone up, by about 0.3 points. The reason why it didn’t is that the composition of applicants is changing at the same time.

The graph shows the cumulative share of main scheme applicants (at June deadline) by domicile. England dominates so we’ve started the axis at 60% so you can see what is going on more clearly. The proportion of main scheme applicants that are from outside the UK has been increasing. Indeed, the composition of applicants (and placed students) has never been more international. This is a product of two trends, increasing international applicant numbers, amplified by falling UK applicant numbers, particularly those from England. This move was particularly sharp in 2018, with strong growth in “not EU” applicants contrasting with English applicant numbers slumping to lower-than-2012 levels.

Whilst the increase in applicants from outside of the UK is what many universities are happy to see, it does come with the side effect of lowering the average ‘recruitment yield’, simply because of the wider competition for these applicants.

Looking at the changes in the share of applicants between 2017 and 2018 against (2018) placed rates it is clear that around 1% of the applicant pool moved from being from England (with an expected recruitment yield of around 80%) to international, with an expected recruitment yield of nearer 50%. In terms of recruitment yield you couldn’t have had a worse pairing. It is this shift that has done the damage to the headline placed rate.

So the fall in the headline placed rate is not what it first appears. It is not a signal that universities have gone into reverse on converting interest into places. In the key UK markets these rates continue to increase and set new records. The overall fall is mostly a product of the growing share of international applicants and their lower-than-average placed rates.

The fall in placed rates for international will be a disappointment for the sector who need this growth. But of more significance might well be how small the increases in placed rates in England and Wales are, despite the strenuous recruitment efforts being made. It suggests that the ‘shock absorbing’ capacity of increasing placed rates is close to exhaustion here. Any further falls in applicants next year must be very likely to pass through to recruitment.

In this environment we recommend individual universities do need to track key market statistics like the placed rate closely, and use what they find to adjust their strategy in response. Simply looking at the headline change in few applicant numbers is no longer sufficient. We find this need is particularly acute for universities that draw on multiple or complex applicant pools. From our experience, a proportionate response is to have planning forecast models that take account of changes in applicant composition, and apply provider-specific recruitment yields, both at as high resolution as possible.

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