The publication of UCAS’s 2023 end-of-cycle data showed that Oxford and Cambridge are the least popular among the UK’s 24 Russell Group universities.
Cambridge had the fewest applications at 21,940, followed closely by Oxford with a low figure of 24,230. In contrast, the University of Manchester’s popularity surged, receiving nearly 100,000 applications. This constitutes a 31.6% increase from 2020 and places the University at the top of the Russell Groups in terms of application volume.
There has been some fluctuation in Oxford’s numbers over the years – for example a drastic increase from around 20,000 applications in 2018. Yet, the number of Oxford applicants has mostly remained low in comparison to other Russell Group universities.
However, the ratio of places to applications seems to explain this trend. The Oxford University News Office told Cherwell: “This year, over 23,000 candidates applied for a total of only 3,300 undergraduate places.” The overall prestige and academic rigour of the University means that the chances of earning a place are lower than for the majority of Russell Group universities.
Another explanation for this pattern could be increasing mental health problems. Taking into account the prevalence of illnesses, such as anxiety and depression among adolescents, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, many have adopted a new attitude toward mental health concerns. The World Health Organization notes that these conditions increased 25% in 2020, and recent polling conducted by Priory Group revealed that 32% of those between the ages of 18 and 34 accessed mental health services of some kind for the first time during the pandemic.
Recent years have also seen students encounter frequent disruptions to their education, resulting in a consequential series of unprecedented examination periods. A particularly difficult period for GCSE and A-Level students combined with low acceptance rates which invariably sit between 15% and 17.5% make earning a place at Oxford as a veritable challenge.
The University told Cherwell the ratio of places to applicants “reflects the University’s demanding academic entry requirements and the number of undergraduate places on offer which is smaller than many other Russell Group universities.”
There is also a general waning interest in undergraduate studies, as shown by 10,000 fewer UCAS applications in 2023 compared to 2022. This is likely in part attributable to financial concerns faced by prospective students.
The government recently announced plans to alter student loans, including lowering the repayment threshold from £27,295 to £25,000 and prolonging the repayment period from 30 to 40 years. Student loans create issues for countless young people, particularly amidst cost-of-living difficulties.
Oxford University News Office told Cherwell: “The University of Oxford’s admissions priorities are to attract the best candidates with the greatest academic potential, and to widen access for young people who are underrepresented at Oxford.”