UCAS’ national debate, Journey to a Million forecasts a story of upcoming growth in demand for UK higher education. By 2030, there could be up to 30 per cent more HE applicants, with confidence ratings projecting an increase of between 19.5 per cent and 41 per cent.
Yet when I speak to vice-chancellors and principals across the UK, few speak of their intention to vastly grow their intakes, build new campuses, or open new faculties.
Similarly, current indicators don’t point towards exponential growth in the availability of apprenticeship opportunities – we know that last year, fewer than 5,000 under 19-year-olds in England started level four and above apprenticeships.
Here lies the crux of the challenge – in a world where demand outstrips supply, how do we keep global competitive forces at bay and ensure that students can still access the world-class HE experiences they deserve? All while maintaining positive progress towards widening access? As will be the case for many readers, I’ve got personal, as well as professional, interest in this topic, with my youngest daughter set to be one of the Million.
Today, key figures from across the education and training sector offer their perspectives.
The necessity of IAG
The UCAS I joined in 2018 operated in a very different environment. The demographics force shaping the sector was a declining number of 18-year-olds in the general population, rather than the growth we are seeing today.
The post-2012 reforms incentivised the expansion of the HE market – particularly in England, as average university funding increased by 25 per cent and the cap on student numbers was removed. This gave students the metaphorical upper hand during the 2010s, as universities wooed students to increase their intake. The focus from UCAS and others was to encourage individuals to aim high and make aspirational choices.
But given the increasing demand for higher education we see on the horizon, without a matched increase in opportunities, the clock is ticking on a world where three in five students receive offers from all five courses on their UCAS application. Hints are already there with a 54.3 per cent overall offer rate at higher tariff providers in 2022, down from 59.7 per cent last year.
In this increasingly competitive environment, there is a risk that it is the lesser supported groups of students that lose out.
Competition, of course, is neither new, nor necessarily a bad thing. Nothing worth fighting for comes easily, and students (and their teachers) expect to face some degree of competition when they apply for a place at college, university, or for an apprenticeship.
The key, as articulated by Nicola Dandridge, former chief executive of the Office for Students and now professor of higher education policy at the University of Bristol, is that it evolves as a “force for good”.
Several authors draw attention to the increased need for high-quality, impartial information, advice, and guidance (IAG) – and during a period of increased competition, choice, and support to make that choice, is even more critical.
UCAS research already tells us that two in five students believe more and earlier information and advice would have led to them making better choices. If we assume that the rest of the decade will see further divergence of options for students, as higher technical qualifications roll out, apprenticeships grow in popularity, and the lifelong loan entitlement comes on stream, the importance of IAG will only grow further.
The UCAS Hub, introduced almost three years ago, is the only personalised, independent career platform in the UK that is free for schools, colleges, and students. In addition, we recently announced our plans for young people to use UCAS to search and apply for apprenticeships, alongside degrees, putting technical and vocational education on an equal footing with traditional academic routes.
Chris Hale, writing in his former role as Director of Policy at Universities UK, is right to endorse collaboration across the tertiary sector. Where rooted in regions, such collaboration has the twofold benefit of not only creating efficiencies in supply, but also addressing local and civic challenges.
Meanwhile, there’s also real potential to harness benefits from school/college and university partnerships, not least, as Pat Carvalho, Principal at Birmingham Metropolitan College explains, these secondary providers are already living and breathing the incoming demographic uplift.
Lastly, there’s also potential to think about collaboration outside of the UK, with former universities minister David Willetts speaking of the potential for partnerships with overseas universities.
The theme of digital cuts across all the essays within this release – it is seen as a critical tool, ensuring that we can educate the Journey to a Million cohort in a way that both meets individual expectations and optimises our collective economic return for the UK.
Anthony Manning, Director and Dean of Global Lifelong Learning at the University of Kent, draws attention to the acceleration in digital adoption that was borne out of the pandemic. Certainly, online learning benefits from an ease of up- and down-scale; albeit this cannot be at the expense of the personal experience that many students want.
In the qualifications sphere, Jo Saxton, Chief Regulator at Ofqual, speaks of the potential for technology to demonstrably improve validity and reliability in how students are assessed – a capability that could also be rolled out in the HE sector.
Finally, the collection explores how technology also has the potential to act as a catalyst for evolving the admissions process itself – as applicant numbers rise, UCAS must also look inward to our own processes and systems.
Our programme of reform is an ongoing drumbeat and not a one-time deliverable – we continue to hold open conversations with the sector on topics such as choice, transparency, and new and innovative approaches to widening access.
From UCAS’ perspective, the Journey to a Million is as much an economic challenge as it is an education one. In such a context, competition encourages innovation, and creates choice for consumers.
However, the challenge that lies before us is to get that balance right – we must work collectively to create the conditions whereby supply is maintained in the face of the upcoming wave of demand.
In the words of the contributors from the Tony Blair Institute, “human capital is the key to unlocking our potential as a country.” The Million cohort represents a million skill sets, a million ambitions and a million chances to create a prosperous and economically competitive UK.
This article is published in association with UCAS.