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Student numbers before, during and after the crisis

Nick Hillman, Director, HEPI
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Winners and Losers in 2021 

Speaking to the UK Student Accommodation Forum session on ‘Winners and Losers in 2021’ today (13 Apr), HEPI Director, Nick Hillman, said:

I recognise the focus today is on the growth in the number of full-time students, and principally younger ones, and also that we are looking at what seems a positive story of higher education expansion over the past few years.

But we must not forget that the total number of students in UK higher education was lower in every year from 2011/12 to 2018/19 (inclusive) than it was at the high point in 2010/11, when just over a quarter of a million students (2,503,010) were enrolled.

This is principally explained by what has happened to part-time student numbers – as outlined in detail in various HEPI reports[1].

It is only in 2019/20, the most recent year for which we have good data and when 2,532,385 students were enrolled, that the 2010/11 total was finally surpassed. So when tracking tends over time, your starting date really matters.

Levelling up is in 

The shifts in enrolments at London institutions is striking. Striking but not necessarily surprising, as it was not long ago – for example – that Ministers were particularly keen to trumpet the expansion of London universities, most notably perhaps at Imperial West and also UCL East. But as with so much else and despite the Prime Minister being the former Mayor of London, the times they are a’changing. 

London is out of vogue with the current generation of policymakers, with London weighting on its way out – look out for an important new report on this from our former HEPI colleague Diana Beech and her team at London Higher later this week.

Levelling up is in and, in its current guise, that is being interpreted in part to mean that some places should level down. Although London will remain a destination of choice, especially for Londoners looking to study close to home as well as for international students, we may be in for some turbulence.

There is of course a London mayoral election under way, which could change things, but I note the front runner’s commitment to rent controls, which this audience in particular may have strong views about given the potential impact on the supply of housing.

More clarity is vital

The strong levels of demand in the data serve as a reminder that the biggest single error that the higher education sector has made during the crisis was to call a year ago for the reimposition of student number controls, as I have written about elsewhere.

Given the growing demand for higher education, we must now make it even clearer that this old request was entirely linked to COVID and a temporary aberration that does not reflect a deeper view – or else Ministers could use the episode to excuse further clampdowns.

Incidentally, the Government’s biggest mistake on higher education in the crisis, in my view, is the current delay in providing clarity on what can happen in England for the rest of the academic year.

It is vital we have more clarity on this and, hopefully, that students – who, as HEPI’s polling shows, are mainly at their term-time addresses already – will be allowed to attend some learning opportunities in person in between getting their hair cut and enjoying a pint (though the signs are not good).

A step change in access to higher education

It is often assumed that the key driver of growth in full-time domestic demand for higher education is the number of 18-year olds in any one year, and of course we are currently just entering a lengthy period when the number of 18-year olds is set to grow considerably. 

Yet the number of school leavers typically only explains about 10 to 15 per cent of the growth because what matters far more is how many young people have the right qualifications, aptitude and desire to attend higher education. 

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The past is not always an accurate guide to the future but the story of post-war education (as shown in Peter Mandler’s excellent recent book) is one of growing demand for more, and longer, education. Indeed, assuming the huge grade inflation we saw in 2020 and expect in 2021 is embedded in the system in future years (which is not inevitable), the current period could come to look as a step change in access to higher education.

A refreshed International Education Strategy 

On international recruitment, it feels like we might be at an inflexion point for all sorts of reasons, including: shifting geopolitics caused by changes such as Brexit and changing relations between many countries on the one hand and China on the other; a new regime in the US; and the differential impact of COVID – and the differential response of policymakers – in different countries.

I am also struck by the renewed interest in the way recruitment agents operate, in transnational education and in more blended learning opportunities. Here in the UK, the refreshed International Education Strategy includes many welcome new initiatives, and a largely unnoticed but welcome change in the target for the future, from 600,000 international higher education students in the UK a year to ‘at least 600,000’.

The whole point of the Teaching Excellence Framework was to shake the pack

The data being presented at this event today show some particularly sharp growth in Russell Group enrolments since 2012/13. Many people would interpret this as the system working how it was meant to.

There are significant chunks of Westminster and Whitehall that equate the Russell Group with quality and want to see this section of the sector expand at the cost of other parts. But while I am not questioning the quality of Russell Group institutions (three of which I have studied at and, to declare an interest, one of which I am a governor at), it is not actually how the system was meant to work.

The whole point of the Teaching Excellence Framework, for example, was to shake the pack, to shine a spotlight on those institutions that teach well but lack prestige and to provide an inventive for even better teaching among those that rely particularly on research for their reputation. 

One of the most incorrect readings of much recent higher education policy is the common assumption that making students more like regular consumers was designed to embed rather than disrupt existing hierarchies. In some respects, that may have been the end result but that was not (always) the original goal.

Anticipated increase in the number of taught Master’s students

Looking ahead, I think it is likely that we will see a continued increase in the number of taught Master’s students in the near future. If your undergraduate education has been disrupted and the labour market has fewer opportunities than usual, why wouldn’t you consider staying in education for another year, assuming you can afford to? 

Our detailed assessment of postgraduate education by Ginevra House showed this is what happened at the time of the last recession, even though Master’s Loans were not yet available. If the much more static picture among research postgraduate students continues, then we may need to add a shortage of appropriate skills to the ever-growing list of reasons why we are, regrettably, likely to miss the target for increasing spending on research and development as a proportion of national income.

Never again should we underestimate what we do

My parting thought on students numbers is this: never again should we underestimate what we do. There were too many people, inside and outside our sector, who thought that people would respond to the Coronavirus crisis by wanting to learn less.

This flew In the face of demand for education in difficult times in previous decades and also, perversely, assumed young people would rather remain at home with little to do rather than to get on with meeting their aspirations for their own lives.

Let us hope we never have to live through another period like the current one ever again but, if we do, we should respond by showing the education function of universities is as much part of the solution to the challenges of a pandemic as the research function.

Nick Hillman, Director, HEPI

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