The current status of undergraduate applications to UK universities for 2017 entry is just over 10% down across the sector. Interestingly as we approach Brexit, the drop in EU applications is slightly less pronounced and perhaps reflecting this as the last year of entry where access to funding is guaranteed for EU applicants.
None of the statistics have been released yet, but the overall picture has become clear. This situation is causing a great deal of concern in a UK higher education sector already faced by multiple challenges: funding, developing government policy and the B-word. 2016 undergraduate enrolment numbers were strong across the board, and the market has experienced three cycles of year-on-year growth, so what are the factors impacting on the current situation and where might it lead?
An interesting characteristic of the current situation is that it is not isolated to one group of UK universities. Institutions that are low, medium or high UCAS entry tariff, post-92 or Russell Group are facing a significant percentage drop (more than double figures and above 20% in some cases) in year on year UG applications. This would indicate the drop is not simply evidence of the fiercely competitive nature of the market since the numbers cap was removed.
It is, therefore, important we consider all the likely reasons for this decline so as to understand the true scale of the problem and the factors that may be contributing to the downturn. There is the acknowledged demographic issue (identified by Census data) that means there are less 16-18 year olds in the U.K. than in previous years. This will be impacting across the board (and in certain regions in particular). This will remain a challenge until the situation improves in 2020.
There is evidence from applicant data that during recent cycles more and more applications are being made later in the cycle. This is reflected both through some universities seeing up to 20% of their UCAS window applications coming in the last few weeks before the January 15th deadline, along with more first-time applications then ever being made between March and August. 2017 applicants may be more aware than predecessors that they can wait to apply and enjoy the ‘buyers market’ that now exists in the UK UG market at confirmation and clearing.
There is a growing gender imbalance in relation to both achievement and participation in higher education (see this report from HEPI).
This factor combined with the demographics will also be contributing to the situation, and the sector needs to address this challenge through the communication of positive messages around opportunity and access.
It is also the case that there are more alternatives to the traditional undergraduate degree than previously. Apprenticeships and online degrees are much more widely available and being promoted more heavily in the current market.
It is very likely, based on the pattern of previous years’ application data, that the situation will improve significantly between now and the January 15th deadline although this will not necessarily turn a current 20%+ year-on-year drop into a surplus for an institution currently struggling that badly.
Universities are currently taking short and medium term steps to deal with the problem. That might involve examining both current and historic applicant data in relation to subject areas and feeder schools to get closer to the detail of the shortfall. Universities are also focusing more attention than ever on their CRM systems and conversion strategies and the engagement that they achieve with visitors both to their website and crucially their open days. Interestingly, attendances at open days in the last few months have (in most cases I know of) grown across the sector year on year.
It will be fascinating to see where the dial rests when we get the 15th January deadline.