Journey to a Million – get ready for a different set of choices, and a different student experience

In 2030 applicants will be navigating more options and a scaled-up student experience. Ben Jordan discusses the third stage of UCAS’ national debate on the Journey to a Million

Today, we’re continuing our Journey to a Million debate, releasing the third part of UCAS’ essay collection in partnership with Knight Frank and Unite Students.

The first part launched back in March, with the second tranche released in April. UCAS is projecting that we could see up to a million applicants to UK higher education (HE) by the end of the decade, up 30 per cent from today.

In this, our third, and bumper release, we’ve compiled the views of over 20 experts from across the education and training sector to explore what this incoming wave of demand will mean for student choice and the student experience.

Two sides of the same coin

In many ways, these disparate concepts are entirely related: with competition on the rise, both will look and feel very different by the end of the decade.

Now, when we look at UK 18 year olds, we know that one in three of those who make five choices get five offers. However, skip forward to 2030, and without a corresponding uplift in supply (for which offers is a proxy) these odds might shift. Equally, with UCAS committing to creating a side-by-side application service for apprenticeships alongside undergraduate courses for 2025 and beyond, the nature of the choices themselves may also change.

Currently, we know that 40 per cent of those interested in undergraduate study are also interested in apprenticeship options, equating to around 430,000 individuals, with demand on the rise, this could conceivably reach 500,000 aspiring apprentices.

Meanwhile, as pathways diverge and resources are squeezed, education and training providers will not only wish to maintain quality in the face of increased demand, but also to distinguish themselves. Therefore, the student experience of 2030 will inevitably need to look different – not worse but different.

Skills, skills, skills

Several contributions discuss skills, which is set to transcend both student choice and the student experience. As Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of University Alliance, remarks in her essay, we are on the verge of a fifth industrial revolution, which will give great importance to skills such as the 4 Cs of collaboration, communication, critical-thinking, and creativity as identified by Kingston University, London. Students themselves are already alive to the importance of skills – 2022 student polling ranks “developing skills” as the number one factor when thinking about getting value from their studies.

On the flip side, universities and education providers will want to think about how skills can be at the core of course development. As Andy Durham, Executive Vice President of Global Business Unit, at Lightcast explains: “It is about discerning which skills could be incorporated into their courses and wraparound support, ultimately to help their students to be better prepared for future employment.” It is, as Lisa Morrison Coulthard, Research Director at National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), highlights in her essay, these “essential employment skills” will be critical to ensuring that the HE sector fosters workplace-ready graduates.

Careers education

The essay authored by student Melody Stephen speaks frankly about the “you don’t know what you don’t know” challenge – one which resonates with me, aged 16, thinking about my future steps and I’m sure many readers too.

The solution appears two-fold; firstly, as Oli de Botton, chief executive of the Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) quite rightly calls out, there’s no substitute for brilliant teachers and careers advisers who “have the power to make a huge impact.” However, online tools can play their part and act as a true digital equaliser as we approach what will likely be an increasingly squeezed human resource pool, and at UCAS, the Hub seeks to do exactly that – effectively providing students with their own virtual personalised careers coach, supporting individuals in plotting the right pathway for them.

Equally, once in HE, careers planning won’t stop for our Million cohort; in fact, it becomes ever more important. To quote Kieron Broadhead, Senior Executive Director at the University of Southampton, “working with students to ensure that they are able to plan for and articulate their future careers in an increasingly competitive graduate labour market will require expansion.” This need to evolve and expand careers services within HE must be front-and-centre of the student experience of 2030.

Diversity of choice and experience

A true strength of the UK’s HE system is the range of choice and experience offered by our sector. So how do we make sure we grow these strengths as those interested in apprenticeships reach 500,000?

There’s an information barrier to overcome. UCAS research in 2021 showed that one in three students didn’t receive any information about apprenticeships from their school. In the words of Andy Forbes, Head of Development at the Lifelong Education Commission: “Apprenticeships are still the ‘Stranger Things’ of the HE landscape.”

There’s also an image challenge to meet so that, as articulated by Jennifer Coupland, chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE): “Technical education is ‘another’ not ‘the other’ choice.” Lastly, there’s the practical challenge of how to apply for apprenticeships in a disparate and fragmented landscape.

UCAS earlier this year announced our intention to accelerate our plans to bring our services for aspiring apprentices onto an equal footing with aspiring undergraduates. This can only work in the interests of the Million cohort if the supply of apprenticeship opportunities grows to meet rising demand. Here, Jason Holt, chief executive of Holts Group of Companies, remarks on the importance of getting “the SME package right” to unlock supply.

Living and thriving

The archetypal challenge posed by the growth in demand is accommodation, where our partners for this collection, Knight Frank and Unite Students reflect on the need to accommodate an additional 400,000 full-time students by the end of the decade and, crucially, manage uneven distribution across the UK.

We learn that the shortfall in cities where further growth is forecast, like Bristol and Manchester, has been increasing at a rate of over 1,000 bed spaces per year. In both cases, three additional full-time students have been added for every new bed over each of the last five years.

However, it’s not just about making the sums add-up, it’s also about accommodating an increasingly diverse student community with a plethora of needs. In their own words, “student accommodation is so much more than bricks and mortar… [at its core is] a sense of safety, community, and belonging.” This cannot be achieved in isolation and requires joined up working across providers and their communities.

Both UK and home students see the opportunity to study as far more than a learning experience – UCAS research exploring the international student experience in particular noted how individuals are looking to fulfil a hierarchy of needs related to learning, living and socialising.

This calls for, what Edward Peck, vice chancellor at Nottingham Trent University and HE student support champion, calls “the creation of a coherent system of support.” Scaling-up support won’t be easy but digital advancements can lighten the load, with Heidi Fraser-Krauss, chief executive at Jisc, speaking of how digital “can be one of the most cost-effective solutions to the demographic challenge of the million.”

Range and quality of choice, and a first-class student experience, are the foundations on which our world-renowned UK HE sector is built. As we “Journey to a Million,” safeguarding both principles presents a real challenge.

However, as the saying goes, nothing worth fighting for comes easy – and through a mammoth sector-wide effort, it can be done. Through a razor-sharp focus on skills, high-quality careers advice right across the education spectrum, support for technical pathways and a well-planned and enacted student support strategy, we can ensure that the class of 2030 will have the choices and experiences to thrive.

This article is published in association with UCAS.

One response to “Journey to a Million – get ready for a different set of choices, and a different student experience

  1. Unfortunately ever since Bliar (sp!) and his 50% aim we’ve been heading down a path that put more ‘bums on seats’, to keep them off the dole que, with new courses that have become less and less relevant to the needs of the country, and it also increased the number of ‘suitably indoctrinated’ graduates as per his plan. In the longer term much realignment of courses to needs and outcomes will be essential, if those already in post will allow the requisite changes, as Einstein observed in Science, new discoveries are rarely accepted, until the old guard has died off.

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