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The coming demographic spike will differ by region

Graeme Atherton argues that the coming demographic spike will have a differential effect across the English regions.
This article is more than 5 years old

Graeme Atherton is the Director of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), and Head of the Centre for Inequality and Levelling Up at the University of West London

Wonkhe has warned of a looming crisis of demographic changes that would lead to more 18 year-olds ready to enter higher education in the 2020s in a system not geared up to cope with this. However, closer examination of the evidence suggests that this crisis is not all that it seems. The analysis presented by Mark Corver was an accurate portrait of what may happen to the demand for higher education nationally, but did not explore the differences between regions.

The numbers of 18 year-olds is extremely uneven by region anyway, but the increase in the national birth rate was driven by some areas far more than others. The table below shows the numbers of 18 year-olds in 2018, and forecast numbers by 2030, by the regions of England.

Growth in 18 year-olds by region in England

LocationNumber of 18 year olds in 2018Number of 18 year olds in 2030Projected change in number of 18 year olds (%)
East Midlands544786523620
West Midlands68,6978117318
North West817679642118
North East293693350814
South West620387448420
South East104,75912721321
Yorkshire and the Humber626647405318
East of England 684828444423

The disparities are quite striking. The growth in 18 year-olds in London is twice that of the north east for example. More importantly, by 2030 32 per cent of all 18 year-olds will be from London and the south east. Where young people are born of course is not where they study. The large numbers of 18 year-olds in London and the south east who wish to go to higher education may, capacity allowing, flock north.

On the basis of recent history this is very unlikely. Despite the rhetoric from those who think that the problems in the English higher education system are caused by our unique proclivity to traverse the country seeking higher education, the majority of students study in the region they live or the one closest to it. Over 60 per cent of London-domiciled students study in the capital or the south east. The present government’s approach to student finance is not likely to change this. However, even if the changes to student finance proposed by Labour came to pass, changes in this area are not likely to be huge. The reasons that most students stay relatively close to home are primarily cultural anyway.

The ethnicity factor

Understanding the impact of demographic change on higher education does not mean just looking at region, but ethnicity too. This makes regional disparities look even starker. Last year AccessHE used data on higher education participation and demographic change by ethnic group to model the future demand for higher education in the capital. The subsequent report, Preparing for hyper-diversity: London’s student population in 2030 showed that potentially, the numbers of young students going to higher education would increase considerably from 67,000 to over 100,000 by 2030.

This increase is being driven by those from BAME backgrounds. In particular, the numbers of those entering HE from Pakistani, Bangladeshi and mixed ethnic backgrounds is forecast to increase by well in excess of 50%. By 2030 over 70% of students entering HE from London may be from BAME backgrounds.

Geographical divisions

The implications of looking at demographic data through the lens of region and geography make the threats of rapidly increasing demand look more nuanced. The growth in higher education participation is likely to contribute to some of the geographical divisions which have become increasingly important in recent years, which will do little to endear higher education to certain politicians. It is London and the south east who will experience the real infrastructure pressures, as they are doing now with the big increases in pupils coming into secondary schools. For London in particular, the higher education sector will become increasingly diverse and it will need to work hard in the coming years to ensure all these students get the experience they deserve.

There is a silver lining for access as the areas of lowest participation also tend to be the areas where 18 year-olds will increase the least making it in theory, easier than it could have been to achieve their target to eliminate the geographical gaps in access and student success within 20 years. What demographic changes risk doing though is further divide an already divided system. The crisis that some may experience in coping with the demand for higher education will be one others may look on with envy, as their growth is far more modest.

There should be a good news story here with the 2020s bringing an increasingly educated and skilled population, but it will require leadership at the national but also regional level to achieve this.

3 responses to “The coming demographic spike will differ by region

  1. It’s absolutely right that the higher the degree of resolution in the data, the more accurate the population change forecasts. National and regional data are very useful as a guide, but also of interest to those planning at those levels. For individual universities demand profiles are uniquely driven by location, catchment, demographics by age, exposure to age group, portfolio and subject trends etc. Every university will experience change in the pools of students uniquely and it is therefore important for leadership teams to understand their backdrop in some detail.

  2. Migration out of London to the wider South East is another factor that could increase the number of 18 year olds in the South East region. It may also effect other areas to a lesser extent outside of London as family homes are sought after outside the capital. There was an interesting article on migration in/out of London here: . I wonder whether this trend will continue, but if so I suspect the ‘b’ word may impact on the levels seen in the past decade.

  3. Thanks, Mark – but you need to weight the figures in the table by the respective participation rates to generate a meaningful projection of future demand. Its unrealistic to expect all the extra population to progress to higher education. Here are the approximate current rates:

    North East 29.4%
    North West 32.5%
    Yorkshire & the Humber: 32.5%
    East Midlands: 32.0%
    West Midlands: 32.2%
    East of England: 33.8%
    London: 43.1%
    South East: 36.6%
    South West: 32.1%

    Which in turn suggests the following changes in actual demand are possible:

    London: 12.9%
    East Midlands: 6.4%
    West Midlands: 5.9%
    North West: 5.9%
    North East: 4.1%
    South West: 6.4%
    South East: 7.7%
    Yorkshire & the Humber: 5.9%
    East of England: 7.8%

    So London demand is expected to be more than three times greater than the North East (not twice as great).

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