UCAS projects that in 2030, there could be up to a million higher education applicants in a single year, up from almost three quarters of a million today.
This ‘Journey to a Million’ presents key challenges and opportunities to the sector as institutions respond to the increasing and changing demand. In response, the admissions service has created a collection of essays discussing the main themes of widening participation, supply and demand, competition, making choices and scaling student experience.
All these themes feed into strategic planning and forecasting and have implications for institutions’ financial security, regulation and reputation. As a result, they are very much on the radar of governing boards.
The governor of a new university in the Midlands mentions a recent away day where discussions included longer-term plans for recruitment in light of potential increased demand. But this is set within a wider set of considerations – and uncertainties.
“Recruitment is one factor sitting among other factors such as competition between different institutions and wider political events, such as not knowing what is going to happen with international student recruitment, not knowing whether we are going to see some level of student number controls down the line, and quite a challenging financial position for lots of institutions,” she says.
The challenge, working with the executive, is to think about long-term recruitment within this wider context.
According to a governor at a northern Russell Group university, there is a general predisposition in favour of expansion across the sector.
“Most organisations, universities as much as companies or charities or whatever, want to get bigger and better at what they do,” he says. “But you can only grow where there is demand and where you are not losing too much money. You don’t want to expand courses where you are losing significant sums of money as that disrupts the whole economic make-up of the institution.”
While there may be a general appetite for expansion, it cannot be assumed that all institutions are going to equally absorb the influx; there are going to be winners and losers in the HE quasi-market.
An expert in university governance in London cites the situation during Covid when teacher-assessed grades led to a sudden jump in the number of students meeting entry requirements.
“In London’s case, the selecting institutions were mopping up students who would normally have gone to the middle third of the tariff spectrum,” he says. “So some of the moderns and the post-92s, experienced then what we might be seeing on a larger scale in the rest of this decade: there may be rising demand but students are absorbed by different bits of the sector.”
In his view, this could leave some institutions “fighting and scrapping for numbers” and feeling the pinch financially. At the opposite end of the spectrum, more selective universities run the risk of over-recruitment.
Housing student cohorts, literally and metaphorically, is an issue that universities face now and must plan for in the ‘Journey to a Million’.
“There is finite space, the rental market can only absorb so much demand,” said one governor. “Leaving students to fend for themselves in a competitive market of rising costs and no guarantees that the actual accommodation is fit for purpose is not something institutions want to do and runs the risk of reputational damage.”
You can read Stella Maris, student Rector’s Assessor for the University of St Andrews blog, as she shares her views on what can be done to best support the financial sustainability of higher education institutions, staff and students in the cost-of-living crisis.
One of the questions raised by ‘Journey to a Million’ is who will constitute that million. International students, and the extent to which their numbers will rise, is a major preoccupation of governing boards.
A recent Office for Students report on the financial health of the sector highlighted an overreliance on overseas students at some institutions.
“We’ve got a very volatile, changeable geopolitical landscape that we assume is going to continue,” said one governor. “What happens if something were to happen with the UK relationship with China that fundamentally alters prospects for recruiting from those territories? That is the one big unknown that could really shift the landscape of ‘Journey to a Million’.”
For institutions that trade heavily on being able to cross-subsidise their other activities through international student recruitment, policy developments such as the recent announcement of restrictions on dependents, will have broader impacts.
But universities have little room for manoeuvre, according to a Russell Group governor.
“Whatever political party gets in from next year onwards, you have to assume that they will have limited means at their disposal,” he says. “I don’t think they are going to hike fees or inject loads of cash into the sector. So for the time being at least, you have to recruit internationally to ensure income.”
This is particularly the case when home student fees as a unit of resource are frozen and declining in real terms. On that, one governor warned: “There’s a risk you are inviting in problems as well as solutions by saying ‘we’ll increase our fee income’ and assuming the net increase is going to put you in a more secure position.”
A similar point is made by a governor at a post-92 university: “What else can universities be reliant on [than international students] when they are losing money in research and they are losing money teaching home students; there are only so many sources of income.”
Another consideration for governors in the ‘Journey to a Million’ is widening participation. While this is a key indicator for most universities, there are tensions pulling in the opposite direction.
“On the one hand, there is widening access and ensuring that is maintained, but some of the pieces of regulation and the focus on outcomes does not necessarily support that,” one governor said. “I saw some recent research that said if you go to university from an advantaged background, you will come out with a good job regardless of where you study and what you do. It almost disincentivises widening participation.”
The cost of living crisis is hitting students hard, making it even more challenging for universities to support disadvantaged students. Many may be working more hours and juggling academic commitments against other concerns.
These considerations mean that governing boards need to be asking not just about raw number projections but about the characteristics of those students and what that means in planning terms.
“If you can see that your student body is currently 40 per cent Free School Meal (FSM) eligible and you recruit primarily from the local area, that socioeconomic background correlates with greater barriers to HE and greater support needs. The intake will result in a very different resource calculation than institutions where FSM intakes are 5 per cent,” says the London governance expert. “Much of the young HE participation in London is driven by FSM eligible students. Universities are thinking about what they should do specifically to gear up their offer and their teaching and learning for these undergraduates. What is your curriculum, what is your student support and how is that suitable to your likely intake as it grows over the course of the next few years?”
A governor at a selective university predicts that a hefty proportion of the growth in home student numbers will be made up of those from less affluent backgrounds.
“Pretty much 100 per cent of middle-class UK students who want to go to university already go,” he says. “There’s not much room for growth among the middle classes, aside from a few going down the route of degree apprenticeships, which are just another form of HE. Any substantial growth needs to be among boys and polar quintiles.”
According to governors, it will be a challenge to ensure the student experience is maintained on the Journey to a Million when money is tight but many students need greater academic and personal support.
“The need for student support and academic staff grow at the same pace as student numbers but institutions are facing a financial straightjacket,” said one.
Student expectations about the quality of their university experience are rising. Undergraduates look to universities to provide mental health support, for instance, and universities have had to respond to that with big investment.
“This balancing act needs monitoring and governors need to understand how those things can be squared,” warned the governor of a new university. “Different groups have different student experiences. If you are growing your international student numbers, how do you ensure that the group is catered for specifically and has a positive experience? That is a good thing for governors to be mindful of on the road to a million. No institution wants to say that student experience is diminishing because finances are so challenging but I think, nevertheless, that it is a real risk because eventually, something has to give.”
Attention and resources are also necessary to ensure rising numbers of graduates succeed in an increasingly competitive environment.
Governors mention a greater focus on employability in recent years, the elevation of the skills agenda and the growth of vocational courses and degree apprenticeships. Governance needs to be flexible enough to respond to skills shortages and to capitalise on the new lifelong loan guarantee by providing the modular, applied courses that are likely to be in demand from the older, less traditional stream of students it could attract.
“Employability is an area where students’ perspectives and government perspectives are quite well aligned,” said a Russell Group governor. “Ministers are very focused on skills and students are very focused on getting good jobs.”
According to a high-tariff university governor, one of the reasons boards are paying more attention to employability is the advent of the new condition B3 which sets numerical thresholds on progression, completion and graduate outcomes.
“If there are governors out there that don’t know what B3 is, they jolly well need to find out because it is critically important,” he said.
As student numbers rise to respond to demand, universities and their governors need to be alert to diminishing returns.
“Taking on lots of students because that is improving access and improving their life chances might be right but the counter-veiling view in some parts is that morally, it is not right because you are taking on all these students only for a proportion of them to discontinue or fail, and that is exploitative,” said one governor. “It’s worth engaging with those views seriously rather than dismissing them as an attack on the sector. There will always be those who will think there should be some form of restriction or control on the intake because if you can’t pass GCSE English and maths, is university the route for you or is it marketing you a false dream? This view won’t just go away and could arguably get more intense as the ‘Journey to a Million’ progresses.”
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