Journey to a Million: the last instalment is here, but what now?

In 2030, the higher education sector will look and feel very different, but how do we ensure the rest of this decade is a successful one? UCAS Head of Policy Ben Jordan sets out some ideas

Today sees the publication of the last instalment of UCAS’ Journey to a Million essay collection with expert thinkers reflecting on what the 30 per cent uplift in demand by the end of the decade will mean for all facets of the student lifecycle.

As we reach the finish line for our publication, in many ways, the starting gun is just being fired for the Million cohort. As today’s Year 7 (S1 in Scotland) school pupils look ahead to their summer holidays, for the sector, there is much work to be done.

This can be boiled down to two major challenges: choice – how do we ensure that students remain in control of their own destiny? And competition – how do we equip students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to navigate this new landscape?

Ramping up capacity (carefully)

The Journey to a Million presents a once in a generation economic opportunity to tackle skills gaps, but with this is also the risk of wasted talent if we do not create attractive and accessible options for these individuals. So, what can be done?

Put simply, we must grow the supply of high-quality opportunities across the full range of post-secondary options and yet, as Anthony McClaran, Chair of GuildHE, remarks, “to maintain a variety of providers and provision we can’t all just continue to grow.”

But as always, the devil is in the detail. Take apprenticeships, for example. It won’t be enough to increase apprenticeship vacancies without targeted intervention to ensure they are available to school leavers – last year, there were 4,720 degree-level apprenticeship starts for those under 19 in England, representing just 5.3 per cent of starts at that level.

Similarly, there is a strong argument – as articulated by Dr Katie Petty-Saphon, Chief Executive of the Medical Schools Council (MSC), in her essay – for the expansion of places for medical students. This will also be a tricky balance to strike – expansion requires careful planning with collaboration across government, the NHS and universities. But for MSC, the prize is a glittering one: “Patients [will have] better access to care and improved health outcomes [and] bright applicants [will] have greater opportunities to begin a career in medicine.”

Strengthening join up

So, let’s skip forward to 2030 and assume that choice has prevailed, and the Million cohort have a range of options, stretching from the academic, residential degree, a wide range of apprenticeships and technical options, to modular options (powered by the LLE). A further challenge will be enabling transparent and informed choice across the full range of options.

From this autumn, UCAS will build on its existing offer, expanding its service so that young people can see apprenticeship and traditional undergraduate degree options side-by-side. From later in 2024, students will then be able to apply for apprenticeship opportunities via UCAS Hub, alongside their other undergraduate choices. This will deliver a clear, accessible, and joined-up service allowing students to discover, decide and apply in one place.

However, further join-up will be needed, not least to realise the benefits of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, with the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) contribution proposing the introduction of individual skills accounts to give greater agency to students. UCAS, alongside many in the sector, advocates for a consistent cross-system unique learner identifier (similar to the Unique Learner Number) which would track and recognise student achievement across their lifetime. As the educational web grows more strands, a well-managed data architecture will be critical to its stability.

Competition versus aspiration

As we explored in our first release, increased competition has the potential to hamper efforts to improve equality of opportunity. The good news is that our projections point towards a narrowing of the so-called “application gap” with those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds (POLAR4 Q1) set to be 2.56 times less likely to apply than their most advantaged peers (POLAR4 Q5) – down from the 2.81 times we reported in 2022. However, this projection is based on two assumptions: firstly, that populations for each POLAR group increase at a consistent rate and, secondly, that applicants from each POLAR group make the same number of choices as today. Which brings me to the importance of aspiration raising.

We must continue to counteract the misconception that – as Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), explains – “‘going to university’ is what happens to other people, other families, not you or yours.” This is a sad but unfortunate reality, and one that requires targeted and unwavering investment in high-quality careers education. To quote Ginny Page, Director of Education Programmes at the Gatsby Foundation: “young people can only make good choices if they have access to good information and guidance.”

Time for a more radical approach to widening access and participation

Of course, applications are only one part of the picture. We project that overall offer rates may fall in the context of demand outstripping supply, and more of the most disadvantaged (POLAR4 Q1) may get no offers, and around one in six will get just one offer. As The University of Manchester’s President and Vice Chancellor Nancy Rothwell and Vice President for Teaching, Learning and Students April McMahon suggest, “university education should not be the preserve of those with financial means.”

Continued and sustained initiatives and engagement are key. UCAS research illustrates the importance of primary school age interventions – which inevitably have long lead-in times, and yet both the risk and (potential) reward are greater. Equally, it will be critical to ensure that access plans across the UK are cognisant of the changing market dynamic. For example, new access and participation plans in England are set to take effect for the 2025–26 academic year, which would see their running until 2029–30, where we are set to hit peak demand for UK higher education.

It may be that we need to go further – there are lessons to be learnt from colleagues north of the border with Gerry McCormac, Principal and Vice Chancellor at the University of Stirling, reflecting that “Scotland already has one of the most progressive access policies in the UK.” More specifically, in Scotland, minimum entry requirements for care-experienced students have operated since 2016, which as UCAS’ report covers, has improved their access to higher education. Universities UK has since suggested consideration be given to their roll-out UK-wide for other underrepresented groups, improving their access to HE opportunities.

For UCAS’ part, we continue to invest in our Fair Access Programme, which aims to build on the extensive work already underway across the sector. One flagship initiative is our Outreach Connection Service, due for launch this autumn, which will help connect schools and students to suitable outreach activities in a personalised fashion. This is designed to increase the visibility of these opportunities.

Now the hard work begins

The metaphorical ink may only have just dried on this, our final release, but UCAS will continue to promote the Journey to a Million discussion as we seek to support the growing applicant cohort, and ensure no student is left behind. As David Willetts comments in his essay, how to manage this surge in student numbers should be one of the big issues in higher education policy now. Otherwise, future historians will look back on this moment and wonder why we failed to do anything to plan for or take advantage of the opportunities created by the growth which is so clearly coming.

For our part, we’re committed to ensuring that reform to the admissions service keeps pace with students’ changing needs – we guarantee the Million cohort a system based on transparency, fairness, and agency but above all, their authentic voice. The chance to play a role in educating and training our future physicists, entrepreneurs, creatives, and lawyers is not one that anyone working within HE takes for granted – we are committed to coming together to keep improving the student experience. This is a privilege we cannot and will not forget.

This article is published in association with UCAS. To read all these contributions to UCAS’ national debate on Journey to a Million please visit the following link: What do we do now?

Leave a Reply