The UCAS application process needs to be more than efficient – it needs to be personal

12 September 2023

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Our Product Development Manager Heather Brown discusses recent changes to the university application process and why they are so important for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As students embark on the exciting prospect of applying to university, for many this is a process of exciting campus visits, flashy websites and endless form-filling with parents on hand to help with the bureaucracy.

However, for some the process is much more daunting. Consider the students who don’t have parents to support with the complex finance forms, or mature students wandering through the minefield of childcare, benefits or income changes.

I have had the privilege of working in both the further education and higher education sectors, therefore have seen both sides of the process. I have supported applicants, acted as a referee, and interviewed candidates for places on HE courses, so I know how gruelling the process can be for students. UCAS predict that there will be 1 million HE applications a year by 2030; the application process is managing huge numbers of people and therefore needs to be very efficient. However, as someone who has seen the real-life jubilation and heartbreak of this process – who has given high fives to those students I worked so hard to help achieve the grades they needed; consoled the tearful when they hit the grades but still didn’t get the place; and been the hype man for the terrified heading into their first ever interviews – this process needs to be more than efficient. It needs to be just and, even though there are hundreds of thousands of people, it needs to be personal.

Over the past few years, UCAS has made some incredible reforms to the application process which will continue into 2024. More detailed information about the changes for 2024 is available on the UCAS website. Crucially, UCAS appear to be committed to supporting students from disadvantaged or challenging backgrounds – any issues a student is facing are highlighted at the application stage to provide the higher education institution (HEI) with ample opportunity to support these students.


Why is early support from HEIs so important?


UCAS published research in 2022 which showed that disabled students were 28% more likely to defer their university offer than non-disabled students, therefore early contact, information and offers of support are imperative to these students. As the Sutton Trust explains, there is a distinct link between disability and social mobility, and this is twofold. Firstly, some disabilities are more likely to occur in people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. And secondly, where a disability occurs in a person from a higher socio-economic background, the pressure of caring for this person can cause financial hardship in the family

The Office for National Statistics reported a 13.8% pay gap for disabled workers in 2021 - an increase of over 2% from 2014.


Encouraging disabled people into higher education could be one way of helping to close the widening pay gap between disabled and non-disabled workers. The Office for National Statistics reported a 13.8% pay gap for disabled workers in 2021 – an increase of over 2% from 2014. Therefore, enabling disabled students to feel confident in the support that they will receive when attending a HEI, potentially away from home, is a vital factor in making HE more accessible and in improving the prospects and social mobility of disabled people.


Higher education could provide a vital lifeline for care-experienced people


In a different 2022 study, UCAS reported that when considering an HEI, 76% of care-experienced people viewed the mental health support available at the HEI as an important factor in deciding whether to attend. Care-experienced people are a vulnerable group in terms of their socio-economic status; Crisis reports that a third of care leavers will experience homelessness within two years of leaving care. Progression to HE after school is only 13% for care leavers, compared with 43% for the rest of their peer group. Early support for care-experienced people is therefore vital to encourage them into HE.

Progression to HE after school is only 13% for care leavers, compared with 43% for the rest of their peer group.


In 2023, Carers First celebrated the introduction of the carers’ section of the UCAS application form, wherein applicants can inform HEIs about their caring responsibilities so that information and financial or academic support can be offered to them. Young carers are 38% less likely to obtain a degree than the rest of their age group, and those with caring responsibilities – which take on average 35 hours per week – are 86% less likely to graduate from university. These students also tend to live in the most deprived areas. The link between being a young carer and economic deprivation is strong, and HE could provide a vital lifeline for this group of people.

Learn more about the issues faced by care-experienced people in this episode of the Let’s Go Further podcast.


Changes to the UCAS form are positive – but impact needs to be monitored


The reference section of the UCAS form is set to change for 2024, as shown here. The second section may be particularly important for students who have experienced significant challenges impacting on their performance. We know that not all students come from a level playing field, so this is a positive move that attempts to highlight to HEIs the extraordinary difficulties that some students have faced, and it will hopefully help to level that playing field. Of course, the referees can provide this information, but it is for the HEIs to consider how it is used. UCAS are masters of data analysis and I hope that the impact of this section is tracked over the coming years.

An additional update to the application process for 2024 is something that every organisation with a commitment to equality and diversity keeps under consideration: the gender question. UCAS have broadened this question in an attempt to be more inclusive (view the current question here) and have committed to continuing to work with stakeholders on this question as time goes on. It is difficult to track data for non-binary or transgender people entering HE, as this question has been poorly worded in the past – another reason why getting the question right is so imperative. It is vital that we ensure that transgender and non-binary students are being supported into HE and that there is no gap between their success rates and those of their peers.

Gain more insights into the experiences of transgender people in our conversation with Jake and Hannah Graf MBE on the Let’s Go Further podcast.

My plea to the university admissions departments across the country is that they actually engage with the reforms that UCAS have made and take notice of the information being provided them by applicants. I hope that, as they scroll through the reams of forms, they look outside of their window from time to time to the students walking past, sitting chatting, or studying arduously, and remember that they have a real person’s future in their hands and that not everyone has had the same experience or advantages to this point.


Are you an Access to HE student working on your UCAS application? Read our tips for writing your personal statement.

The Skills and Education Group is passionate about equity, diversity and inclusion. We explored this topic in Series 2 of our Let’s Go Further podcast – listen to all episodes here.