This blog was contributed by Adam Wynne, Head of Policy (Higher Education) at the Russell Group.
Another results day has passed and while the shadow of COVID19 still lingers there are still many positives to celebrate as we start returning to normality.
With grade boundaries set somewhere between 2019 and 2021 and with this year’s A level students sitting exams for the very first time, there were a range of unknowns that institutions had to take into account when making offers. Particularly in those highly competitive medicine and dentistry courses which are strictly limited by the Government’s cap.
However, those unsung heroes of results day – the admissions teams at universities up and down the country – have been navigating the uncertainties very effectively. Figures show the numbers of UK students placed at higher-tariff universities are the second highest on record, significantly up on 2019 and the pre-pandemic trend. That story is echoed across the sector with more young people landing a university place than in 2019, including those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.
And, contrary to some reports in the media, it has not been the case that domestic places have been squeezed by a growth in international student numbers. The fact that our universities attract people from around the world should be celebrated. It’s a key part of the Government’s International Education Strategy – contributing to the student experience, building global networks, attracting funds that are re-invested in our universities, and benefitting the wider UK economy.
But while we have seen increases in international numbers, that growth is modest compared to the increase in UK student numbers. Home students continue to make up over three-quarters of our undergraduates. Indeed, this year’s figures show that so far in the cycle, the number of UK 18-year-olds securing undergraduate places at higher tariff universities is up by 24% on 2019, while the equivalent figure for international students (EU and non-EU) is around 6%. Those numbers should reassure that a buoyant international student market is not mutually exclusive with universities’ determination to provide a high-quality education for homegrown students.
Like every year, there are students who have just missed out on their grades but applicants should not panic – there may well be flexibility or other options, such as similar courses, they might want to consider. The majority of Russell Group universities have been in clearing this year and over the next few weeks our admissions teams will be working hard to place as many young people at our universities as possible, while making sure every student can receive the world-class teaching and learning experience they rightly expect.
The dust will have barely settled on results day, of course, before universities start preparing for thousands of new students arriving on campus. These students have gone through two years of the pandemic so are a tough bunch but with inflation biting every part of society they now face a different set of challenges.
Russell Group universities are increasing investment in hardship funds, student support and mental health services. This means not only upping spending on traditional services like counselling, but also on innovative new approaches that help students take steps to protect their mental health proactively. Alongside the welcome, induction and transition plans already in place for new students, last year we launched Jumpstart University with The Open University to help students prepare for and settle into their studies at university. It provides a range of online materials covering study skills and mental wellbeing. It is open to students at all universities, to help them prepare for university with confidence and hit the ground running.
Beyond this year, there is no doubt that admissions will continue to be competitive as the number of applicants grows, rising to 1 million by 2026 according to UCAS. While competition for places at top universities is not a new or even bad thing, it is clear that rising demand, rapidly increasing costs and the freezing of tuition fees will make things challenging for universities over the next few years.
Our universities will always work to be as efficient as possible so they can give as many people the opportunity of studying a high-quality degree as they can. However, in the long-term, without action to increase the per-student unit of resource available to universities, this will inevitably begin to have an impact on the range and quality of undergraduate courses that can be offered. Far from ideal as we look to protect the pipeline of skills we need to drive a productive economy.
The Russell Group has already called on Government to work with the sector over the next two years while fees are frozen to develop a new funding formula from 2024/25 that is not only fair to taxpayers and students but ensures we can continue to nurture the next generation of innovative, highly skilled graduates that the UK needs to succeed. We hope Government and the new PM will take us up on our offer.