Student numbers set to soar, but are we ready for them?

Today, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) publishes a new report looking into demand for higher education in England up to 2030.

The report, which I have co-written with Bahram Bekhradnia, looks at the cumulative impact of demographic trends, policy changes, and expected participation rates. It predicts that universities in England should be preparing to take on an extra 300,000 full-time undergraduate students by the end of the next decade.

Yes, 300,000, really

This figure is not extravagant. It takes account of the estimated 50,000 students the English higher education sector could lose due to Brexit.

It also does not assume that male students will participate in higher education at higher rates than they do currently. If this were to be the case – and if boys significantly closed the participation gap on girls over the coming years – English universities could well be faced with having to provide up to half a million extra full-time, undergraduate places by 2030, magnifying the scale of the challenge that lies ahead.

Neither silver lining nor silver bullet

On first glance, this news of increased demand for higher education could be taken as the silver lining the sector needs at a time when the clouds appear to be gathering thick and fast over UK universities.

Not only are we in the middle of a demographic dip in the 18-year-old population, meaning many universities are facing considerable declines in applications for the academic year ahead, but the looming shadow of Brexit, and the steady stream of negative stories about higher education in the media, have not done much for the sector’s morale. Knowing there is light at the end of the tunnel could certainly help to keep spirits high.

However, when it comes to thinking practically about the logistics of accommodating these additional students in the near future, the outlook becomes much bleaker – particularly considering the current economic and political climate we find ourselves in, with competing pressures to lower the cost of university education for students and taxpayers alike.

Value for everyone’s money

Given the review of post-18 education and funding, announced by the Prime Minister just last month, these projections compound the difficulty that the reviewers (and the advisory panel) are faced with. They must try to square the circle, finding a way to provide increased support to future students, while widening access and maintaining quality. With undergraduate numbers set to increase so much over the next 12 years, the government has a massive task on its hands to try to make the maths work, as well as to convince the public and students (past, present and future).

Attempts to lower or even axe tuition fees could seriously harm the higher education sector unless that money is provided from elsewhere. This is particularly important in light of our findings, which show that the sector needs increased resources to enable it to grow and meet rising demand. If the findings of this report tell universities anything, it is that they should be thinking seriously today about building the infrastructure they need to accommodate the enlarged student populations of tomorrow, while retaining their reputations. And for that, they are going to need all the financial support they can get.

Nice problems to have

The desire to see maintenance grants reintroduced for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds could also be thrown into jeopardy, if it is accepted that many of these new entrants to higher education will be ‘first-generation’ students and, therefore, more likely to be from households with lower than average incomes.

Given wider constraints and uncertainties, supporting more ‘first-in-family’ students directly from the public purse is an argument that may prove increasingly difficult to make, raising alarm bells for the progress made in widening access and participation in the sector to date.

Raiding HE for FE

The bottom line is if student numbers are going to increase so much over the coming decade, and the pressure remains on the government to minimise the burden on students and taxpayers, then casualties are going to be inevitable. Rationing loans and bringing an end to the present policy of unrestricted HE recruitment are all distinct possibilities if nothing changes in the political climate.

We also should not be surprised, given the government’s current rhetoric about improving the reputation of technical education, if some of this demand (and funding) is gradually syphoned off into further education, apprenticeships, or elsewhere.

What is clear for now though, is that higher education looks set to remain a destination of choice for ever-more young people in the future. So, to avoid a lot of these young people from being disappointed when they realise they cannot fulfil their ambitions, it is essential that supply is allowed to keep up with demand over the years ahead. And for that, the pressure is firmly on the government and universities to plan ahead.

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