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7 things we know about this year’s university applicants

7 July 2023

Delving into university applicants’ attitudes, needs and confidence in comparison to last year’s cohort, Unite Students’ 2023 Applicant Index is now available to download.

From sustainability and finances to wellbeing and independence, here are some of the key takeaways from this year’s report.


1. This year’s university applicants are less anxious than last year’s…

Student wellbeing is always high up the Higher Education agenda, and the applicant wellbeing score for 2023 shows a slight improvement on last year. In particular, the number of applicants reporting that they have a low level of anxiety is up two percentage points on 2022 – though this remains significantly lower than the results reported by the 2019 and 2021 cohorts.

Additionally, the proportion of university applicants reporting that they have a mental health condition is 19%, a decrease from 20% in 2022. This is the first time in recent years that this figure has not gone up.


2. …but almost a third have had their schooling disrupted by their mental health

However, optimism in this area should remain cautious: one stark finding from this year’s report is that 30% of university applicants had been absent from school or college in the past two years because of their mental health. Female, LGBT+ students and care experienced applicants in particular were more likely to have missed school for this reason.

This aligns with research and anecdotal evidence from secondary schools indicating that absence has increased substantially since the pandemic.


3. This year’s applicants are more financially confident

The cost of living has dominated headlines in the past 18 months – our latest episode of Accommodation Matters explored some of the ways in which this has impacted students in that time, and many of the headline findings from last month’s Advance HE and Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) Student Academic Experience Survey focused on its impact on students.

Perhaps surprisingly, university applicants’ confidence in this area has increased – particularly when it comes to budgeting, which saw a three-point increase from last year. While there has been an increase in the number of applicants concerned that they won’t have enough money to cover their university costs, this year’s applicants are more likely to feel like they can reach out to family or friends for financial support, and 68% of applicants had undertaken paid work in the past year. Those who had done paid work had a higher level of and resilience, independence and confidence in employability.

However, the sector should be mindful of less affluent applicants, as well as those who are care experienced or estranged, who may not have this safety net to fall back on, and whose mental health is more impacted by financial issues than average.

4. Black and Trans applicants feel lonely at a lower rate than Black and Trans university students – suggesting they may find the transition to university particularly difficult

24% of applicants said that they ‘often’ or ‘always’ felt lonely, compared to 26% of undergraduate students surveyed in the Student Academic Experience Survey (SAES); however, some demographics showed significant changes after the transition to university. Black applicants – who had the highest applicant wellbeing score of any ethnic group – felt lonely at the same rate as the applicant population overall, but Black students surveyed for the SAES were five percentage points more likely to feel lonely than the student average.

The effect of the university transition was even more pronounced for Trans students and applicants, with the rate of loneliness increasing from 41% for applicants to 50% for students. This could be in part due to the impact of some Trans students moving away from established support networks at home, something that was anticipated as a concern by applicants themselves: 75% of Trans applicants agreed that they were anxious they wouldn’t fit in at university, compared to half of the wider university applicant population.

There was one good news story to come out of this point of comparison – loneliness was six percentage points lower for students with a disability or health condition than for applicants in the same demographic, suggesting that being at university is having a positive impact on these students’ sense of inclusion and community.


5. Registering for a GP and managing conflict are areas where applicants may lack confidence

The Independence theme, new for this year’s Index, monitors university applicants’ confidence in living independently at university and the skills required to do so. The good news is that confidence is strong in this area, with around 7 in 10 applicants saying they feel confident about living independently at university, and just under three-quarters agreeing that they are confident in making decisions for themselves.

Within this theme, we explored applicants’ confidence in completing specific tasks that they will or could undertake at university, such as cooking a meal, doing laundry, looking after a friend and managing conflict. The tasks on which applicants were least confident included managing conflict with housemates and health knowledge, such as registering with a GP and dealing with a medical emergency – gaps that university and accommodation pre-arrival information could help to support.


6. Fewer than 6 in 10 university applicants think their actions have an impact on tackling climate change

Gen Z are often looked to as a beacon of hope when it comes to climate activism, but the Index suggests that applicants are becoming more sceptical about their ability to make a difference: Sustainability was the only theme score to decrease from 2022.

While this year’s applicants are slightly more careful about using electricity and water than last year’s, there has been a small drop in the proportion of applicants who recycle and make sacrifices to live sustainably. Just 58% of applicants agreed that their actions had an impact on tackling climate change, with a fifth of male applicants actively disagreeing.

We’ll be exploring some of the reasons why students may be finding it harder to live sustainably in a forthcoming blog, including scepticism about corporate greenwashing, cost of living challenges, and cultural differences.


7. The number of disabled and LGBTQ+ university applicants is underreported due to non-disclosure

While a majority of applicants with a disability, including mental health conditions, either has or plans to disclose this information with their university, nearly one in five (18%) have no plans to do so: this is commonly because these applicants – who are more likely to have a mental health condition or be neurodivergent – either believe it makes no difference to share this information, or are not formally diagnosed.

Additionally, 23% of university applicants self-identified as lesbian, gay, bi, queer, asexual, pansexual or ‘in another way’, but only 58% of these applicants shared this information when applying for university. Given that this group of students are more likely to feel anxious about fitting in at university, have a stronger desire to feel like they belong at university and have lower wellbeing scores overall, it’s useful for the sector to be aware of this data gap.


To read more of the report’s findings, including those on university applicants’ academic confidence, resilience, intention to vote and confidence in their own employability, you can download the Applicant Index report from our website now.

You are invited to join our dedicated Applicant Index webinar, hosted by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) and featuring both a presentation of key findings and a sector panel discussion, at 10am on Tuesday 11th July. Sign up here to book your place.

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