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Ten (basic) points about demand for higher education this year

  • 4 September 2021
  • By Nick Hillman

These are my remarks from yesterday’s UK Student Accommodation Forum on demand for higher education in 2021/22 and on, hosted by Unipol. The event also saw the launch of an excellent new paper on International Students and Factors Affecting Accommodation in the UK.

  1. When it comes to demand from home students, the naysayers were wrong in 2020 and they are wrong again in 2021. We have seen record demand from home students and UCAS expect this to keep on happening. The crucial thing – perhaps the single most important fact to bear in mind when thinking about education policy – is that young people are rational. When the world is in flux, getting more education is an insurance policy (not a guarantee) against that flux adversely affecting you.
  2. Such growth is not just happening at Russell Group universities, but demand there is especially strong. I worry we may end up with a top-heavy sector as a result. And I worry about what this means for cities without a Russell Group university – Hull, or Leicester or Portsmouth, for example. But as this week’s Times Higher ranking shows, our most prestigious universities are truly world class.
  3. We are seeing a higher proportion of all students coming from the UK, in part because of the strong demand but also because of the drop off in EU numbers. This will regrettably make our campuses less diverse, especially as the EU students who will keep coming will be typically from very well-off backgrounds.
  4. Non-EU international student numbers have been healthier in the crisis than many people feared, and we have benefited from the relative closure of Australia, but the numbers are still adversely affected by practical issues like how many planes are flying. Longer term, I also worry, more generally, that the UK is vulnerable to the argument that we charge international students more but sometimes seem to give them less, for example in relation to careers support – watch this space for more on this challenge in 2021/22.
  5. Boys continue to lag far behind in higher education entry. It seems, as Mary Curnock Cook has shown, that teacher preferences work even worse for boys than exams do. This is a major social problem and we must keep talking about it even though you often get fiercely attacked when you do. In short, our entire education system is letting boys down in the way that, years ago, it used to let girls down.
  6. Clearing looks down while deferrals look up. Last year, we were talking about ‘undeferrals’; no one is now. The rise in deferrals is likely to be partly out of choice and partly out of pressure. If it were me, I would not defer unless I had something really enticing to do in the year out (though I can well understand why institutions would welcome more people deferring until next year, given the pressures they are under). Sure, take some time out for, say, mental health reasons if that would help you, but try to avoid being stuck at home bored while your CV stagnates.
  7. Look out for home postgraduate numbers, which are likely to be healthy. The same arguments that apply to school leavers not wanting to join the labour market now also apply to new graduates (although the financial calculation on whether more study is affordable can be harder). The possible decline in demand for postgraduate study among international students has also sometimes made institutions keener to recruit home postgraduates. But there is a terrible delay in the publication of good numbers on such things. We lack sufficient real-time data and I am surprised that the more market-driven environment in which we now all operate has not led to louder calls for this. (Seven years ago, in his HEPI Annual Lecture, Professor Paul Wellings noted how deregulation in Australia had meant ‘a growing demand for very high quality analytical tools and university planning offices are under greater pressure to provide real time analysis’.)
  8. Look out too for Foundation Year numbers, as – contrary to the Augar report’s dislike of Foundation Years provided by universities (as opposed to colleges) – many young people see their attraction. If you have been less well prepared for higher-level study as a result of COVID, for example, a Foundation Year may look particularly attractive. (The UPP Foundation’s Student Futures Programme is keen to hear from you, by the way, if you have good data on this.)
  9. Medium-term, demand for UK higher education should stay strong. It has been rising for years among school leavers, aspiration levels are high and there is a decade of growth in the number of 18-year olds coming our way. But even without a student numbers cap, which I hope is never reimposed, there may be some blackspots on the horizon. For example, the fact that BTECs are out of favour may affect some people’s ability to reach higher education unless T-Levels are tremendously successful.
  10. One odd feature of results day was people saying young people should look to apprenticeships instead of traditional higher education. Of course, apprenticeships can be fantastic and can work well for employers and apprentices. But as Professor Andy Westwood has shown, there were about 3,000 higher level apprenticeships starts by young people in the first half of the 2020/21 academic year. So apprenticeship numbers are a minuscule fraction of the higher education entrants. To a large degree, the focus on apprenticeships remains a red herring.

None of these points answers some crucial questions. Will the student experience be good enough? Have enough staff been employed? Are guaranteed accommodation offers breaking down in the face of high demand?

Time will tell but the HEPI / Advance HE 2021 Student Academic Experience Survey shows there was a shocking proportion of students in 2020/21 who thought they were getting poor value for money, and we clearly need to get the numbers back down again. Yes, tuition fees have not been rising but more students does mean more fee income and that income is there to look after and educate students. Thinking about another issue that has been discussed this week, it seems likely that students, taxpayers and parents would rather the money was used for this than for endless pension scheme bailouts because overdue reforms keep being delayed.

Anyone who is interested in this whole area should make sure to follow @markcorver and @AndrewdataHE of DataHE on social media, as they have been wonderful guides to the data all summer.

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  1. Cath B says:

    It’s really not accurate to describe the awarding process for TAGs as “teacher preferences”
    They were based on internal tests, using material and descriptors supplied by exam boards

    This phrasing suggests teachers are biased against boys (rather than that, for example, the cultural conditioning of boys makes many less likely to work for something they don’t see as a single high stakes assessment, which has been observed for many years)

  2. albert wright says:

    Nick, you are “spot on” regarding the tax payer funded demand for university undergraduate and post graduate qualifications and education.

    It’s almost a no brainer, especially for the many who will never repay their student loans.

    If I was 18 to 21 (rather than 71) I would be seeking an apprenticeship degree in a subject that was likely to give me a good job and good income for the next 40 years. There is increasing evidence that those with such degrees are outperforming comparable graduates on starting salaries and incomes after 5 years, although (as you say) they are tiny numbers by comparison to graduates.

    Just because there is a strong third party funded demand for graduate education does not mean that taxpayers should increase the supply of places. There are many more deserving ways of using the £billions involved and some of the money that goes to graduates could (and in my opinion, should) be diverted to apprenticeships and better early education.

    In many cases, those doing well at the age of 7 in education ( whether in public or private schools) are already the most likely to become graduates.

    I feel sure the offer of free places at public schools would also increase demand for public schools.

    Regarding the Russell Group, (and Oxbridge) the restraint on numbers seems to me to be limited by physical capacity at those institutions and the need to recruit and accommodate more tutors. The investment needed in physical and human capital ( and possibly the geographic foot print) makes the marginal cost of expanding unattractive.

    The demand is definitely there, despite the higher points required from prospective students.

    To argue that because there is a strong demand for something, the supply should be increased without considering the cost involved and who pays, is simply a non starter in my view.

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