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The Journey to a Million applicants to HE starts today

UCAS is forecasting a million applicants to HE by 2030. Chief executive Clare Marchant introduces the data projections that will start a thousand conversations
This article is more than 1 year old

Clare Marchant is chief executive of UCAS.

For regular Wonkhe readers, the phrase Journey to a Million won’t be a new one – it’s been a consistent drumbeat from me and my UCAS colleagues for more than twelve months.

This week, UCAS publishes the forecasts driving the headline for the first time, in partnership with Knight Frank and Unite Students.

As the UK’s admissions body for entry to higher education, UCAS has unique insight and understanding of patterns in progression. That’s why we’ve been able to combine third party population data from the Office of National Statistics and World Bank with demographic data and projected application rates to create applicant forecasts.

This is a tried and tested method – our forecasts have borne out to within ten per cent of their real number over the past five years (notwithstanding the small matter of a global pandemic). They also align with those shared by the Office for Students in England and HolonIQ, which has modelled more than eight million global enrolments by 2030.

Our forecasts tell a story of upcoming growth in demand for UK higher education and therefore competition. By 2030, there could be up to 30 per cent more HE applicants, with confidence ratings projecting an increase of between 19.5 per cent and 41 per cent.

Accelerators and brakes

Simple population dynamics play a major role with the number of UK 18-year-olds set to increase by 19 per cent by 2030. UCAS projects that this could create 457,000 applicants aged 18. Additionally, we’re projecting a 60 per cent increase in international students, signalling the ongoing attraction of UK HE.

As recent history shows, demand for HE can be influenced by a range of factors, including the state of the economy, geopolitics, and policy change.

The impact of these can be prolonged, or immediate, depending on the event – a recent example being the spiking of interest in healthcare courses during the pandemic as individuals were inspired by those who worked to keep us safe.

That’s why we’ve also modelled a series of potential disruptors that could affect the forecast. For example, modelling patterns in behaviour of mature applicants is notoriously challenging, not least due to the symbiotic relationship that we see between numbers applying to HE and the state of the economy.

On one hand, economic boom could see demand plummet from mature students, so we’ve modelled a ten per cent decline. However, prolonged recession could see appetite increase as individuals look to reskill and/or upskill. For this, we’ve modelled a ten per cent uplift.

There’s also the small matter of (arguably) the single biggest shake-up to education policy since 2012 – the introduction of the Lifelong Loan Entitlement in 2025. While this won’t (necessarily) affect the overall volumes per se (it is all, after all, higher education, however you chunk it up), it has the potential to affect the way in which students interact with education and training – you could foresee a world where more students choose to study later in life, bringing a brand new audience to HE.

Another potential disruptor is a major change to the pipeline of international students choosing to enter UK HE. Whilst the UK has experienced growth in international applicant numbers over the last decade (up 31 per cent), this market is more volatile than the domestic market. With that in mind, we’ve modelled the impact of a drop in demand from overseas following a major geopolitical event and, with competition post-pandemic ramping-up, a scenario whereby the UK sees its market share fall to eight per cent.

In the event of any of these disruptors, we continue to project growth. Furthermore, some disruptors could result in further accelerated demand, with numbers reaching 1.1 million

Five key challenges

Following these initial forecasts, UCAS has invited 50 thought leaders from across the education and training sector to join a national debate about access to UK higher education as competition grows – which we are kick starting this week. Out of their contributions, we have identified five key challenges that the Journey to a Million will bring – we will be publishing their thinking on all of these during the coming weeks.

1. Widening access

With nearly a quarter of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas now entering HE, compared to just over 11 per cent in 2006, the UK has reduced the equality gap. However, with demand set to increase there’s a real risk that progression stalls, or even reverses as the landscape becomes more competitive.

2 & 3. Supply, demand, and competition

As demand for HE grows, without a corresponding uplift in supply, we will see a more competitive environment. The days of one in three students getting five offers are numbered. Many within the sector are already preparing for this, by growing their portfolio of options beyond the residential three-year degree and thinking about new modes of delivery. What will the next big innovations in HE look like? How can we balance scaling up with continuing to deliver a high-quality experience?

4. Making choices

The strength of UK higher education rests on its diversity — there are so many ways to study, and so many student experiences to be had. But making sure that the million students are choosing the right pathway for them will not only require a variety of options to be available, but also that careers information, advice and guidance keeps up with this changing landscape.

5. Scaling the student experience

An increase in demand and stretched finances means that the sector will need to work together to continue to offer a great experience to all students, including those who come to the UK from overseas. We need to listen to what’s important to students – from teaching and learning to support services.

This is a once in a generation opportunity to build a highly skilled workforce, realising the potential of today’s eleven year olds. The path is not an easy one, with many challenges and difficult decisions ahead.

By kick starting this national debate, we hope to play a part in making the Journey to a Million a successful one.

3 responses to “The Journey to a Million applicants to HE starts today

  1. By 2030, the “value” of the £9250 undergraduate fee will have fallen to around £2000 compared to when fees were brought in in 2012. And no current prospect of any change from this government or likely the next – they have other compelling (aka vote winning) priorities around the NHS, School etc. Yes, demand will go up, unit of resource will go down, but can you realistically see staffing and infrastructure levels increase to meet the extra numbers of students? On campus or remote learning still needs to be resourced, student tutors, examinations, marking, pastoral and well-being support. Brace for yet more demands on academics and professional services ….

  2. I’m surprised it’s not:

    “This week, UCAS publishes the forecasts driving the headline for the first time, in partnership with McDonalds, British American Tobacco and Smirnoff Vodka”.

    Forgive me, but the over-commercialisation of an essentially public service is shameful. The cost of accessing your data is prohibitive, meaning that innovation for the benefit of students is made impossible for small ventures. We were quoted £30-40k to get some basic data sets to try and create a free report to support students to make better decisions about which universities they could apply to. Very sad.

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