Leticia Veruete-McKay, Senior Economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)

Ahhh, another new school year has begun. It is a time of great excitement for pupils after returning from their summer holidays and seeing friends again. For teachers, refreshed and recharged, there is much enthusiasm and promise about what they can achieve for their new pupils in the year ahead. For many school leaders, there is hope, not least that this year will be better than the last.  

For school leaders of University Technical Colleges (UTCs), this latter sentiment will apply more than for most. This is because UTCs, first introduced in 2011/12 to promote diversity in the school system through vocational education, have faced a number of challenges since their introduction.

There has been significant public and media criticism of the UTC model, with concerns expressed about their viability, performance and cost. Several new UTCs closed their doors soon after opening, and the main reason cited for these closures was a failure to recruit sufficient pupil numbers to ensure they were financially viable.

In June 2017, the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) published a research report which examined the available data to assess what was really happening with UTCs. This found that while most UTCs had a challenging start, this was partly to do with the difficult context they were operating in and how they were being judged.

Progress 8

For example, our research suggested that at least some of the poor performance of UTCs in the headline accountability measures may be because the academic measures do not recognise the composition or breadth of curriculum offered by most UTCs. It is good to see that the Department for Education (DfE) has recently acknowledged that Progress 8, their headline accountability measure, is not the most appropriate performance measure for judging UTCs’ performance.

Our research also examined concerns about UTCs’ failure to recruit sufficient numbers of pupils, and confirmed this was a major issue. However, the research also noted that UTCs are trying to attract pupils at age 14, which is a non-traditional age for moving school in England, and were doing so against a backdrop of a reported lack of proper careers advice. To address this, the Government announced new legislation in 2017 requiring local authorities to write to parents with children in Year 9 to inform them about choices and opportunities at age 14.

In the remainder of this feature, we look at what has happened to pupil recruitment in UTCs following this legislation.

What happened to UTC pupil numbers in 2017/18?

The latest published pupil numbers data, which relates to January 2018, shows that the number of UTC pupils increased by 16 per cent compared to January 2017. In contrast, pupil numbers in the whole secondary sector in England grew by just over one per cent over the same time period.

We also looked at what had happened to the average pupil numbers in UTCs, which takes into account the changing number of open UTCs each year. As shown in Figure 1, the average number of pupils in a UTC has increased from 230 in January 2017 to 261 a year later, an increase of 14 per cent.

Furthermore, of the 49 UTCs which were open in 2017/18, we now have one - Aston University Engineering Academy - which is operating at full capacity. This UTC was opened in August 2012, so it has taken six years to reach this point, but they have made it!

Figure 1: The average number of pupils per UTC has increased between 2017 and 2018


We know that UTCs primarily recruit pupils at age 14, so the new legislation is likely to impact on pupil numbers in Year 10. Is there any evidence that the pupil numbers in this year have increased in 2018?

For the 44 UTCs that have been open for at least two years, we find that Year 10 pupil numbers have increased by nearly 20 per cent compared to January 2017 levels.

Furthermore, just over half managed to recruit a record number of Year 10 pupil numbers.

Some positive overall signs, but not for all

Despite these positive signs, not all UTCs had a rosy time in 2018. Three UTCs closed their doors for good and two more closed and subsequently reopened to make a fresh start at the beginning of the 2017/18 school year.

Since then, a further three have announced that they would be making a fresh start in 2018/19, bringing the total number closed / fresh start UTCs to 12 - about 20 per cent of all opened. Most of these were operating well below capacity and not attracting sufficient numbers to be financially viable.

As shown in Figure 2, most of the increase in pupil numbers since January 2017 has been generated by newer UTCs that have been set up in the last two academic years. The five new UTCs opened in September 2017 attracted about 150 pupils on average while those opened in September 2016 enrolled an additional 140 pupils on average in 2017/18.

Conversely, many of the UTCs which opened more than two years ago have seen their average pupil numbers stagnate or fall. Furthermore, only 45 per cent of the available spaces in all UTCs are being filled, with six in 10 UTCs less than half full, which is unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term.

Figure 2: The average number of pupils in older UTC cohorts appears to be stagnating


What might the 2018/19 year hold?

Despite the headline trends in 2017/18 looking good, the picture is still rather bleak for many UTCs. Are there reasons to hope this year will be better than the last? Maybe so.

Firstly, while only 45 per cent of the available capacity was taken up in 2017/18, this was nearly seven per cent higher than in 2016/17. Take up may increase further in 2018/19 as the new legislation only came in part way through the year in 2017.

Furthermore, DfE’s recent acceptance that Progress 8, their headline accountability measure, is not the most appropriate performance measure for judging UTC performance, may also help.

However, it is increasingly clear that it will take some time before most are operating at near full capacity.

The Government needs to think more about how it can support UTCs further with new initiatives in order for them to expand and thrive.

Leticia Veruete-McKay, Senior Economist at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)

You may also be interested in these articles:

Sponsored Video

Register, Login or Login with your Social Media account:


Upcoming FE Events

Advertiser Skyscrapers

Newsroom Activity

Westminster Forum Projects (WFP) added a new event 13 hours

Next steps for SEND provision in England - the SEND...

This conference will be an opportunity to discuss the future for SEND provision in England, following the expected publication of the Government’s...

  • Tuesday, 29 March 2022 09:00 AM
  • Online
Tina Morris has published a new article: Top Digital Solutions to Help Graduates Get Hired 13 hours 33 minutes ago

Latest Education News

Further Education News

The FE News Channel gives you the latest education news and updates on emerging education strategies and the #FutureofEducation and the #FutureofWork.

Providing trustworthy and positive Further Education news and views since 2003, we are a digital news channel with a mixture of written word articles, podcasts and videos. Our specialisation is providing you with a mixture of the latest education news, our stance is always positive, sector building and sharing different perspectives and views from thought leaders, to provide you with a think tank of new ideas and solutions to bring the education sector together and come up with new innovative solutions and ideas.

FE News publish exclusive peer to peer thought leadership articles from our feature writers, as well as user generated content across our network of over 3000 Newsrooms, offering multiple sources of the latest education news across the Education and Employability sectors.

FE News also broadcast live events, podcasts with leading experts and thought leaders, webinars, video interviews and Further Education news bulletins so you receive the latest developments in Skills News and across the Apprenticeship, Further Education and Employability sectors.

Every week FE News has over 200 articles and new pieces of content per week. We are a news channel providing the latest Further Education News, giving insight from multiple sources on the latest education policy developments, latest strategies, through to our thought leaders who provide blue sky thinking strategy, best practice and innovation to help look into the future developments for education and the future of work.

In Jan 2021, FE News had over 173,000 unique visitors according to Google Analytics and over 200 new pieces of news content every week, from thought leadership articles, to the latest education news via written word, podcasts, video to press releases from across the sector, putting us in the top 2,000 websites in the UK.

We thought it would be helpful to explain how we tier our latest education news content and how you can get involved and understand how you can read the latest daily Further Education news and how we structure our FE Week of content:

Main Features

Our main features are exclusive and are thought leadership articles and blue sky thinking with experts writing peer to peer news articles about the future of education and the future of work. The focus is solution led thought leadership, sharing best practice, innovation and emerging strategy. These are often articles about the future of education and the future of work, they often then create future education news articles. We limit our main features to a maximum of 20 per week, as they are often about new concepts and new thought processes. Our main features are also exclusive articles responding to the latest education news, maybe an insight from an expert into a policy announcement or response to an education think tank report or a white paper.

FE Voices

FE Voices was originally set up as a section on FE News to give a voice back to the sector. As we now have over 3,000 newsrooms and contributors, FE Voices are usually thought leadership articles, they don’t necessarily have to be exclusive, but usually are, they are slightly shorter than Main Features. FE Voices can include more mixed media with the Further Education News articles, such as embedded podcasts and videos. Our sector response articles asking for different comments and opinions to education policy announcements or responding to a report of white paper are usually held in the FE Voices section. If we have a live podcast in an evening or a radio show such as SkillsWorldLive radio show, the next morning we place the FE podcast recording in the FE Voices section.

Sector News

In sector news we have a blend of content from Press Releases, education resources, reports, education research, white papers from a range of contributors. We have a lot of positive education news articles from colleges, awarding organisations and Apprenticeship Training Providers, press releases from DfE to Think Tanks giving the overview of a report, through to helpful resources to help you with delivering education strategies to your learners and students.


We have a range of education podcasts on FE News, from hour long full production FE podcasts such as SkillsWorldLive in conjunction with the Federation of Awarding Bodies, to weekly podcasts from experts and thought leaders, providing advice and guidance to leaders. FE News also record podcasts at conferences and events, giving you one on one podcasts with education and skills experts on the latest strategies and developments.

We have over 150 education podcasts on FE News, ranging from EdTech podcasts with experts discussing Education 4.0 and how technology is complimenting and transforming education, to podcasts with experts discussing education research, the future of work, how to develop skills systems for jobs of the future to interviews with the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister.

We record our own exclusive FE News podcasts, work in conjunction with sector partners such as FAB to create weekly podcasts and daily education podcasts, through to working with sector leaders creating exclusive education news podcasts.

Education Video Interviews

FE News have over 700 FE Video interviews and have been recording education video interviews with experts for over 12 years. These are usually vox pop video interviews with experts across education and work, discussing blue sky thinking ideas and views about the future of education and work.


FE News has a free events calendar to check out the latest conferences, webinars and events to keep up to date with the latest education news and strategies.

FE Newsrooms

The FE Newsroom is home to your content if you are a FE News contributor. It also help the audience develop relationship with either you as an individual or your organisation as they can click through and ‘box set’ consume all of your previous thought leadership articles, latest education news press releases, videos and education podcasts.

Do you want to contribute, share your ideas or vision or share a press release?

If you want to write a thought leadership article, share your ideas and vision for the future of education or the future of work, write a press release sharing the latest education news or contribute to a podcast, first of all you need to set up a FE Newsroom login (which is free): once the team have approved your newsroom (all content, newsrooms are all approved by a member of the FE News team- no robots are used in this process!), you can then start adding content (again all articles, videos and podcasts are all approved by the FE News editorial team before they go live on FE News). As all newsrooms and content are approved by the FE News team, there will be a slight delay on the team being able to review and approve content.

 RSS IconRSS Feed Selection Page