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Changes to student entry quality in a marketised English higher education system

  • 18 September 2019
  • By Dan Monnery, Director of Strategic Planning, Nothumbria University

A guest blog, kindly contributed by Dan Monnery, Director of Strategic Planning, Northumbria University

As the dust settles on this year’s undergraduate recruitment round, vice-chancellors, directors of recruitment and finance directos will be reflecting on how many students their institution has been able to attract. Since the marketisation in England, brought about by the reforms introduced for the 2012/13 academic year, most universities have been aiming to grow or at least maintain their existing numbers. Most analysis and comment has therefore been about volume – at the sector level and for individual universities. And those discussions have been amplified more recently by the financial pressures faced by universities and, the demographic dip in the number of 18 year-olds.

Less prominent has been a discussion about the dynamics of entry quality. Rather than get into a debate here about what we mean by “quality”, let’s assume that average UCAS entry points per student is the best numeric measure that we have and (for the purposes of this blog) this is how quality is defined. There are of course a range of ways of looking at quality and we also need to be mindful of contextualisation, including the fact that institutions with lower entry points may be making a significant contribution to the widening participation agenda and be more diverse.

The relative changes between universities can tell us about their strategies and success in attracting students. This paper  explores what has happened, both in terms of overall and relative entry points and looks at the related changes in student numbers. The growth in the number of 18 year-olds after 2020 may cause universities to reflect on their student recruitment plans.

The analysis focuses on English universities because their behaviour is contextualised by the impact of the 2012 market changes which did not occur in the other parts of the UK. Australia has also introduced a demand driven student recruitment system. Andrew Norton’s 2014 report for HEPI noted that, according to the Australian Department of Education, the changes saw a substantial increase in the number of lower qualified students, albeit from a low base, and this was likely to continue.

This piece considers the last five years of data – the period 2013-2017 and looks specifically at those English universities listed in The Times Good University Guide and those students that meet the criteria for its entry points metric (first-year, first-degree students under 21 years of age). Most of the students with tariff-able qualifications are from the UK.


An increase in the total number of “countable” students, for entry points purposes, from about 241,000 to about 270,000 occurred alongside an increase in the total number of entry points from about 35.3m in 2013 to 38.1m in 2017. However, the increase in entry points was proportionately lower than the increase in students, leading to a decrease in the average entry points per student from 146.4 to 141.4. Some of this decrease will be attributable to changes in exam regimes, which has led to a reduction in the numbers taking AS levels and the points attributed to them, and marking.

Interestingly, in this period we are looking at, the proportion of foundation year (level 3) undergraduate students has more than doubled from 1.1% to 2.3% (and the number grew from 9,710 to 22,190). This means a greater proportion (and higher number) of students are not countable for entry point purposes in the league tables, suggesting that this is increasingly being used as an access route for those students who did not obtain the required entry points for their chosen course or university.

Overall the range of entry points has become smaller. Average entry points for the top quartile of institutions decreased from 184 in 2013 to 172 in 2017. In the same period points for the lower quartile increased from 111 points to 113 points. The convergence towards the lower middle range is evidenced by the fact 90 HEIs had entry points between 100 and 160 in 2013 compared to 106 HEIs in 2017.

The % changes over five years by tariff band are as follows:

Tarriff bandUnder
100 – 120 120 -140 140 – 160 160-180 180-200 200- 240
% Change -2% 12% -7% 8% -8% 0%3%

Looking at geographic differences, students at London universities have the lowest average entry points (126 for 2017) and those from the South East have the highest (135 for 2017).

The sections below look at different groups of universities, competing for students, based on their type and on their ranking in the higher education league tables (specifically The Times Sunday Times).

The highest ranked universities

It is difficult to break into the group of universities that attract the best qualified students. Sixteen of the top 20 universities remain the same for each of the last five years. However, average entry points at 18 of the top 20 have declined between 2013 and 2017 with only Loughborough seeing an increase. It is notable that of these top 20 institutions, all but five have grown the number of students they have enrolled. This is therefore likely to reflect strategies to focus more on growing volume than preserving absolute quality, while maintaining their relative position.

The Russell Group

All 20 English Russell Group universities have seen their average entry points fall over the last 5 years. Average entry points for this group fell by 18 points from 193 in 2012 to 175 in 2017. Figure 1 below suggests that, for most, this has happened in parallel with growing the number of students that they enrol – as with the highest ranked universities (with which there is much overlap).

Five English Russell Group universities (Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester, Southampton and Sheffield) have seen a fall in the number of students over the last 5 years, in parallel with falling entry points, suggesting that volume is not the only determinant. Four of these universities have grown their international student numbers over the same period; because of different qualifications these students may not have the same quantum of entry points as home students. Overall, there is a similar pattern across the whole group of Pre-92s with a pronounced focus on volume rather than entry quality, with one or two exceptions. See Figure 2 below.

The ‘upper middle’

The universities ranked below the top group display various changes with some Pre-92 red-brick universities seeing falling average entry points and some Post-92s improving their absolute and/or relative performance. There is a decreasing level of stability with significant changes in rank order, corresponding with significant changes in student numbers.

Also notable is that highly ranked Pre-92s like Liverpool and Leicester have dropped in the entry points ranking. Leicester fell from 26th in 2011 to 30th in 2012, sandwiched between Royal Holloway and City, and then to 44th in 2017 between Central Lancashire and the jointly ranked Aston and Manchester Metropolitan. During this period Leicester’s average entry points fell by 28, the largest fall in England, but one would infer that it prioritised volume as student numbers increased by 800 between 2013 and 2017. Liverpool’s significant growth in student numbers (of 1,580) has been the biggest of any English university between 2013 and 2017. At the same time it has seen its average entry points fall by 15 and led to its decline in entry point rank amongst English Universities to 29th.

The Post 92s

Fifteen out of 30 English Post-92s have improved or maintained entry points over five years. As with the highest-ranked universities, there is a mostly an inverse correlation amongst the Post-92s between entry points and student numbers. Nine of the Post-92s that have increased in entry points now have fewer students. Ten Post-92s have lower entry points but more students. Eight (Nottingham Trent, Staffordshire, Liverpool John Moores, Birmingham City, Coventry, Huddersfield, East London and London South Bank) have both improved entry points and increased student numbers. Of these Nottingham Trent and Coventry have achieved significant increases in student numbers and improved entry quality, but both have done so from entry points at a lower base (and with very clear strategies focused on the student experience). Leeds Beckett, University of the West of England and Sunderland have seen falls in student numbers and entry points. Figure 3 below shows the distribution.


Over the last five years, there has been a clear inverse relationship between undergraduate student numbers and entry points. Universities appear to have been adopting different strategies with many focusing on growth in volume, at the expense of entry points, and a smaller number prioritising quality. In some cases improvement in entry quality looks likely to have been a consequence of not being able to attract students in sufficient numbers. A very small number of universities have grown volume and improved entry points, but this has been from a relatively low base and it is open to question whether this is sustainable in the medium term.

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