Is everyone onboard the journey to a million?

UCAS projects a million applicants by 2030 - David Kernohan asks if the government is ready enough to ensure providers can cope

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

A million UCAS higher education applicants in 2030 is a big deal – projections, however, are notoriously fickle beings.

In making this forecast (and UCAS is even honest enough to note that the central projection tops out at 2,500 applicants shy of seven figures) there’s a whole bunch of trends to assume, hypotheticals to account for, and assumptions to cross-check.

The figure includes, for example, international students, so we assume geopolitical stasis in an increasingly unpredictable world.

It posits that demand will broadly continue to rise (there’s an interesting 2023 anomaly we’ll get to in a moment), and there will be no constraints on capacity – despite there being a pending response to a student number controls consultation in England, and outriders across the political spectrum already making the case for and end to the painful conjunction of fee freezes and growth that has characterised recent years.

Whitehall worries

But politically, this projection is interesting because it will very likely not be welcomed at the Department for Education. Here’s Robert Halfon’s take:

It is remarkable that we are expecting a million young people to be applying to UCAS by the end of the decade. When people think of UCAS, they think of universities. I want young people to understand all their options and choose the best path for them. That may be university, but it may equally be further education or an apprenticeship. As the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, I do not set any of these apart from one another – and neither does UCAS.

It’s not so long ago that it was settled government policy – for reasons of productivity and international competitiveness – to see participation rise substantially. The elite system that faced Robbins in 1963 is now mass higher education – and there’s a wealth of other nations pushing participation past Blair’s 50 per cent target.

Even more recently, we’ve seen an international education policy in England to drive recruitment into higher education from around the world. This set a numerical target (600,000) that was passed years ahead of schedule – leaving space for the rumoured cuts to international student (and dependent) visas that have dominated news in recent months.

Is there life on MERs?

This weekend The Sunday Times brought a reminder of two of the more insidious attempts to limit higher education participation. The spectre of attainment based number controls – the two Ds at GCSE or similar from last year’s higher education reform consultation seems to be on the table once again, with ministers now expected to make an announcement before the summer parliamentary recess. And the perennial “poor quality course”, now once again firmly linked to graduate salaries as if this was something universities (or graduates) have any control over, could see some selective political pruning of prospectuses.

Both these plans also conflict with the aims of the lifelong loan entitlement – if a career project manager wants to benefit from the latest advances in DevOps on a 30 credit level 6 course should the fact that she never managed to get GCSE English mean that she needs to start with two years of Shakespeare? If an artisan silversmith wants to take a degree course on jewellery design should the fact previous cohorts earn below the median wage stop him? And should a promising prospective teacher, with three good A levels, be held back because in overcoming a troubled background, they missed out on level 2 qualifications by a handful of marks?

Even if you cleave to the argument that evidence of good basic academic skills is helpful in studying at university level, surely there should be ways of demonstrating this – in a world where lifelong learning is increasingly the norm – that don’t rely on what you did at school.

Regression to the norm

The shape of our projection is interesting – we are all familiar with the slow increase in 18 year olds in the UK through to 2030, and we are (I think aware) that the pandemic brought two anomalously high years of undergraduate recruitment. In a time-series projection it is a ballsy move to get your outlier in early – but the January deadline data for the 2023 cycle does suggest a dip in numbers.

Most data-literate commentators are seeing this as a return to an underlying trend of slower but still notable growth, though there will always be headlines (and, sadly, ministerial statements) suggesting that this is evidence that the aspirational higher-education bubble has burst, and that the myriad technical education options are becoming better thought of. We can probably predict 2024 will see higher entry numbers than 2019 – the comparison on entry rates for UK domiciled 18 year olds will be interesting.

Another part of the projection sees the current trend in international student number growth continuing, though the UCAS report hedges this in the full range of projections. There’s three issues to keep an eye on here: demand (evidence is that students themselves are still keen to study in the UK), permission, and capacity. Given current geopolitical tensions, it is possible to imagine a major source of UK undergraduates suddenly determining that young people must take a first degree in their own system. Or, we could see the Home Office limiting the number of students and dependents.

And given the state of the student housing market (especially for students with dependents, such as those from growth markets like Nigeria or India) we may be reaching a point where we genuinely don’t have places for international students to live near the campuses they intend to study at.

We’re clearly on the road to a million students – but the road is not a straightforward one, and a lot can happen between this projection and 2030. But what happens after that – given declining birthrates in the UK, and continued international uncertainty – is another matter entirely. We do need capacity now, but it is less clear that we will need capacity in 2033.

But for now, what UCAS is showing us is where we can get to if we keep opportunities open, and if policy (and funding) is able to follow individual aspirations as well as ministerial initiatives. It’s not as simple as a case for expansion – but it is a very good reminder that we need a considered, long term, plan for higher education.

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