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The latest data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) confirm expectations that the number of students applying for university places this coming autumn will be up for the third year running.
The figures are apparently defying the gravity of the falling 18-year-old age cohort and show no sign of a backlash against £9,000 a year tuition fees. With other recent reports showing rising employer demand for graduates and record starting salaries for the best, the outlook for higher education students and providers appears rosy.
But it would be dangerous for university leaders and policy-makers to conclude that demand for higher education is and will remain buoyant. Equally, they cannot be certain that the recruitment outlook justifies the huge investments that many have made in new academic buildings and facilities and supports their bullish revenue forecasts.
In fact, beneath the surface of Ucas applications and other recent statistics, there are big and (for some) worrying shifts emerging in the flow of new students into the university system. In particular, rising levels of applications - up 2-3% overall in each of the past three years - have been accompanied by falling numbers of students actually taking up places each year.
Since the last peak in 2010, total student enrolments (according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency) have actually fallen by more than 10% over recent years.
Between 2013 and 2014 total enrolments were down over 40,000, equivalent to the annual intake of around eight universities. The fall has been particularly marked among part-time and mature (aged over 20) students, whose numbers have almost halved in recent years.
This probably reflects the adverse impacts of the new fee and loans regime for these students and the reluctance of employers to contribute towards their costs.
Another disconcerting feature of the shifting demand is the falling proportion of males among applicants and recruits which is leading towards a 55:45% female majority among university students.
What is also clear is that the changes have been unevenly distributed across the 150 or so higher education providers in the UK. Ucas analysis of the last three year’s figures show that a third of providers have experienced growth of 10% or more since 2012, with some 9% growing by more than a fifth.
However, these winners are outnumbered by the losers. A quarter of providers saw enrolments over this period fall by 10-20% and a further 11% experienced even more dramatic falls.
We are also seeing big differences in participation rates across the UK with 45% of 18-year-olds in London now in higher education, but the equivalent rates in Scotland, Wales and most English regions are nearer 30%.
There is no obvious pattern to this imbalance, with some prestigious Russell Group universities among the losers and several post-92 institutions among those experiencing sharp growth.
Our experience from working with numerous providers of all kinds, and talking to others, suggests that the disparities reflect providers’ differing responses to the new market for higher education places.
That market is a buyers’ market, reflecting the incentive to providers of £27,000 in tuition fees for each extra recruit, coupled with the relaxation, and now the abolition of enrolment quotas.
Aspiring students have quickly learned to play this to their advantage, favouring those institutions prepared to offer the best deal for their custom. As a result, the admissions process no longer works in the traditional formulaic way where Ucas applications led to planned proportions of conditional offers, provisional acceptances, A-level results and confirmed places.
Universities now have to continue working to woo prospective students right through the recruitment cycle. Previous ratios between offers made and numbers turning up in September are no longer reliable.
This change can be seen very clearly in the Clearing process after A-level results each August. It is no longer a frenzied mopping up of spare places and unplaced students but a second round of mainstream recruitment. Many students now enter the system for the first time in Clearing and others use their new freedoms to shop around for better offers from more attractive institutions.
All of this is good news for students, as it is becoming significantly easier to get a place at their preferred university. They can often secure entry with lower exam grades than they would have done even a year or two ago. It is also good for those universities willing and able to enrol higher student numbers, and those that are smart enough to adapt to the new rules of the recruitment game.
But there is a worrying number of universities that are stuck in an old mindset and may not be as attractive to prospective students as they think they are. The outlook for some of these this September is much more uncertain, and we can expect more surprising outcomes at the end of the recruitment season.
- Mike Boxall is a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group