More than 50,000 UK-based students were in clearing trying to get places on higher education courses a day after A-level exam results were released, figures show.
This year’s number is the highest since at least 2013, and compares with 39,230 in clearing at the same point last year.
The number of students accepted on to UK degree courses fell this year, initial data from Ucas showed on Thursday, but was still the second highest on record.
On the day results were published, 425,830 people had places confirmed – down 2% on the same point last year but up 16,870 compared with 2019 when exams were last held, Ucas said.
By Friday morning, there were 53,510 UK-domiciled 18-year-old applicants marked as “free to be placed in clearing” on the Ucas website.
A total of 214,930 UK-domiciled students got their first choice, compared with 226,910 last year.
The organisation’s chief executive, Clare Marchant, said the growth in the number of 18-year-olds in the population is something that is likely to create “a more competitive environment for students in the years to come”.
The number of international 18-year-olds getting their first choice this year rose to 19,830 – up from 18,870 last year.
The figure was down from just over 20,000 in both 2019 and 2020, but up on each of the previous years dating back to 2013.
Places for students from China, India and Nigeria are all up – increasing by 35%, 27% and 43% on last year respectively, Ucas said.
Education committee chairman Robert Halfon said international students are seen as a “cash cow” for universities due to their higher fees, the Daily Telegraph reported.
He said: “While we should welcome overseas students, they should not be a substitute for making sure that British students get first dibs.
“I think they are seen as a cash cow and I think that’s wrong.”
The Office for Students (OfS) said that while international students make an “important contribution”, it has signalled to universities that “over-reliance on fee income from international students may create financial risk” for the institutions.
OfS interim chief executive Susan Lapworth said: “Universities are able to recruit as many UK students as they wish on to most of their courses. There are plenty of places available through clearing for UK students who have not yet secured a place for this year.
“International students make an important contribution to academic and cultural life at universities in England and recruitment of international students ensures that less popular courses are able to run each year, giving UK students more choice.
“We have signalled that over-reliance on fee income from international students may create financial risk for universities and we will continue to look at the impact of these recruitment patterns across the sector.”
A spokesman for Universities UK said domestic students still make up the vast majority of places on university courses but that the presence of international students “is something we should welcome, and the Government’s International Education Strategy has an ambition to host at least 600,000 international education students in the UK each year by 2030”.
He said international students “have a huge positive economic impact for towns and cities right across the UK” and that their fees are invested back into a university’s activity “including teaching UK students – which ensures everyone can benefit from a high-quality experience”.
Hundreds of thousands of pupils across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, who sat exams this summer for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak, received their results on Thursday.
A-level grades for students across the UK dropped from pandemic highs, but remained above 2019 levels.
Of the record numbers in clearing this year, a spokesman for Ucas said there are various reasons why students are eligible to find a place in that system, including those who are “extremely savvy and are constantly assessing their options” or those who have an offer confirmed but use clearing to make a new choice.