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UK undergraduate admissions – the outlook

  • 2 November 2022
  • By Nick Hillman

This speech was delivered this morning by Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, to the GSA / HMC University Admissions Conference.

Recovering from COVID

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this annual conference on university admissions once more. I first did so back in November 2014, exactly eight years ago. It was a different time, back in the halcyon days of the Coalition, four Prime Ministers and 10 Secretaries of State for Education ago – before the Brexit referendum and before COVID as well as before more recent geopolitical events like the invasion of Ukraine.

The intervening period has been a fascinating time to be running a think tank, but also of course an absolutely horrendous time to be running an educational institution – and an even worse time to be a pupil or a student. So I plan to start with some general thoughts before looking back at the recent politics of higher education and then moving to the specific task you have set me of looking at the future of university admissions.

Looking back, it strikes me that, when it comes to policy, in many respects 2014 had more in common with the preceding century than with what has happened since. As a former History teacher (in both HMC and GSA schools), I am well aware that it is often claimed the nineteenth century did not really get going until 1815 and the twentieth century did not really begin until 1914. Perhaps it will come to be said in future that the twenty-first century did not really start until 2020, when COVID mucked up everyone’s lives.

While the pandemic tested the mettle of those delivering education inside schools, colleges and universities, it ended up proving yet again the deep commitment of staff towards their pupils and students, irrespective of the type of institution or the level of education.

While the pandemic tested the mettle of those delivering education, whether inside schools, colleges or universities, it ended up proving yet again the deep commitment of staff towards their pupils and students, irrespective of the type of institution or the level of education.

However, it is important to note at the start of any wide-ranging speech on education at the moment that a big job remains in helping young disadvantaged people catch up on what they missed. A fortnight ago, Lee Elliot Major of the University of Exeter, who is the UK’s first Professor of Social Mobility, and Andrew Eyles of the LSE highlighted that, among those entitled to Free School Meals in England, ‘over 28 per cent of primary pupils and 40 per cent of secondary pupils’ were ‘persistently absent’ in the 2021/22 autumn term.

Historians looking back on the twenty-first century are likely to find all sorts of important social indicators took a big knock around 2020, just as in the Great Depression or the early 1980s downturn. As a society, we will be living with the consequences for decades to come for, as we know from past crises, those who are knocked worse tend to suffer lifetime disadvantages. 

The politics of higher education

Back in 2014, you asked me to speak on what the 2015 election would mean for higher education. I have looked back on what I said and I am struck by how some of the important political debates on higher education have not actually changed all that much.

Eight years ago, for example, I said ‘the two biggies’ dominating higher education policy were ‘spending’ and ‘fee levels’. I predicted first that ‘spending on each student will come under severe strain’ and secondly that England’s high-fees system, which was then relatively new and still deeply controversial, was ‘here to stay’. I make no claim that these predictions were hard to make and they did indeed come true.

  • Spending on students – In England, the fee cap for home undergraduates has only gone up once since the higher fees began in 2012, by £250 in 2017, and inflation is eating fast into the amount of money universities receive to educate each one. Mark Corver of DataHE says today’s £9,250 fee is already just £6,540 in 2012 money (which is incidentally the same as just one term’s fee at many independent day schools) and that the undergraduate tuition fee would today be £12,700 if it had kept up with inflation. So that’s a drop in the real value of home tuition fees of nearly 30 per cent and, incidentally, during a period when independent day school fees have increased by over 40 per cent. If you wonder why universities sometimes struggle to offer your former pupils smaller classes, more counselling and better careers advice, there is your answer. We hosted a dinner at Balliol College, Oxford, last night with Lloyds Bank where one vice-chancellor even pointed out it would be considerably harder to keep to universities’ existing net zero commitments if the funding is not there deliver them.
  • Embedding high fees – Meanwhile, despite the fee freeze, the principle of high tuition fees has not only been maintained and embedded in England, but also spread to Labour-controlled Wales. (Scotland and Northern Ireland both maintain different systems for their local students and are likely to continue doing so for the foreseeable future, but the voices flagging the consequences in terms of severe underfunding are louder than they once were.) Perhaps a future Labour Government at Westminster will seek to change the English arrangements in time, but we don’t yet know what a Starmer administration would do.

The reason my 2014 predictions on declining student funding and the resilience of high fees were not hard to make was the underlying driver, which was the country’s financial position, not to mention the wealth of evidence to show other areas of public spending have a higher priority in the average voter’s mind. Back then in 2014, public sector net debt was running at around 80% of GDP. Today, it stands at 98%, the highest since the early 1960s (when the legacy of the Second World War still hung over the Treasury).

So higher education spending per student is going to continue being under severe strain and the bad news is things will get worse before they get better. For example, no politician is going to vote for higher tuition fees this side of the next general election. The fiscal crisis also explains the reluctance of Ministers to provide relief to students suffering from the cost-of-living crisis, though I am proud to be part of the loud and growing chorus of voices urging action here.

The economic and political position is such that we already have a raft of changes to student loans on their way, which will mean that next year’s freshers, this year’s upper sixth or Year 13, will be paying their student loans back for 40 years rather than 30 years – and in some instances, that will mean they pay back very much more than their older brothers and sisters. (Perhaps, just perhaps, this is a limited part of the explanation for the small drop in higher education applications in the current entry round.) If higher education seemed like poor value to some students or graduates before these latest changes to student finance, and our own data produced with Advance HE show about one-third of students think they are getting ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ value from their present course, then it could come to look worse value from next year as the contribution from taxpayers declines.

This current situation also helps to explain why the Government has been pressuring the Office for Students to stop funding students who want to enrol in ‘low-value courses’ via the infamous B3 registration condition. Ministers have also consulted on new Minimum Entry Requirements, meaning you could need – say – 2Es at A-level or equivalent to obtain student finance, as another way to stop those they believe will benefit less from higher education from having a stab at it. We still await the outcome of this consultation, which appeared eight months – or four Secretaries of State for Education – ago.

Student number caps

Even if the focus on the headline fee cap and per-student funding is similar to how it was back in 2014, we are in a very different place when it comes to overall student number controls. Eight years ago, the higher education sector was gearing up for a really bold and important step, the removal of student number caps. This policy had been announced in late 2013, on my last day as the Special Adviser to the Minister for Universities and Science, and it remains the thing I am proudest to have worked on in my whole career.

Lots has been written about the policy, which has changed universities recruitment practices, but one really important thing is always overlooked: why it was that the Treasury performed a volte face by agreeing to shift from controlling the supply of places to letting the number of places be determined by the level of demand. They agreed to it in part because they knew the number of 18-year-olds was falling and so they could promise to remove student number caps without losing financial control or scaring the markets.

The combination in the years that followed of fewer 18-year-olds and no number caps made it a lot easier for many people to get in to higher education at all as well as for others to get in to their first-choice institution. This was generally good news even if, in some respects, universities came to look a bit desperate in their recruitment. You no doubt remember all those headlines about ‘bribes’ to encourage students to enrol, or the rash of conditional unconditional offers. Not only was it easier for applicants to get a place at all, but it was also easier for them to find a place at a more prestigious institution, with lots of selective institutions even entering Clearing in a big way. Ironically, the Russell Group, which had initially been the fiercest opponent of removing student numbers caps, saw many of its members ferociously hoover up students all over the place.

Since then, especially in the last year or so, it has become harder to find your dream place. The number of 18-year-olds is now rising every year until 2030. The grades of school leavers have jumped upwards (and only fell a little in 2022 after the huge COVID boost in 2020 and 2021), further intensifying competition. International students have not only returned but have continued to grow, bolstered in part by Boris Johnson’s more rational approach to educational exports. This growth in demand for UK higher education reflects positive social change, but it has become harder once more to get where you want to be: on results day this year, fewer people got their first choice and 41,000 young applicants remained unplaced. 

There have been particular problems at the so-called ‘top’ end, where many parents of HMC / GSA pupils expect their children to end up. Even the removal of student number caps had not stopped undergraduate entry from being a zero-sum game at the very most prestigious institutions of all. In fact, here it has often been worse than a zero-sum game in some places and for some courses, most notably at Oxbridge, because there has been a reduction in places for UK undergraduates in preference for full-fee payers from abroad. At the same time, places have been increasingly likely to go to applicants from previously under-represented groups, as universities have been under growing pressure from the Director for Fair Access and Participation and others. Admissions at the most selective institutions were especially tight in 2022 while the pig-in-the-python effect of the two larger intakes of 2020 and 2021 work their way through the system.

Given the pace of change and the additional challenges in securing your first-choice place, I understand the frustration that leads to complaints like the one on the front of the Daily Telegraph last Saturday, where the HMC Chair accused ‘Oxford admissions tutors of fist-bumping in glee’ when keeping out independent school pupils. But it has to be said they do not win any public sympathy and are inept in political lobbying terms (though at least, it wasn’t as bad as the last such attack before COVID, when one Head compared Oxbridge entry procedures to anti-semitic prejudice).

I feel for you as staff with responsibility for admissions when your headteachers make such claims because they do you and your pupils no favours by pitting independent schools against universities, when these two types of institution actually share the same goals of delivering high academic standards and well-rounded individuals.

I would even go so far as to claim the negative headlines are counter-productive in a second way too because they mask the true underlying cause of the admissions problem at the most selective institutions, which is a general reluctance to expand. As Research Professional noted earlier this week:

Manchester has about 40,000 students across all levels, compared with Oxford’s 25,000. UCL has about 44,000 compared to Cambridge’s 24,000. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge sit in the top 20 UK institutions when measured by enrolment.

If these two bastions of British higher education really are so vital to the future of the UK’s youngsters, if they really are the high point of the country’s tertiary education offer, then might it not make sense for there to be an expansion in the number of pupils who are able to go there?

When it comes to the most competitive places of all – for Medicine – there needs to be some Government action, with an increase in medical places and perhaps some more new medical schools as well, like the wonderful new one at the University of Sunderland. I suspect this will happen to some extent, given the pressures on the NHS, though no one should pretend it is easy as the Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Wes Streeting, seems to have taken to pretending. It is not only very costly to educate a doctor but you need sufficient good clinical placements too, which are not always easy to provide.

Let me make one final comment on student number caps before I turn in my final section to what all this means for the advice your pupils might benefit from. The Government has floated the idea of reimposing student number caps, which would be disastrous as it would then not be just Oxbridge and Medicine that operated something like a zero-sum game for admissions but the sector as a whole and, potentially, pretty much every single institution within it.

We would be battening down the hatches just as the number of 18-year-olds is set to continue growing for the rest of this decade, and – even more importantly – as schools and colleges continue to churn out ever more young people with the qualifications, aptitude and desire to enter higher education. People tend to assume the biggest driver of demand for higher education expansion is the underlying demographics, but actually it is the higher levels of aspiration in our society and people being more likely than in the past to have the wherewithal to make it to university.

Many parts of the country and many groups continue to have very unequal access to higher education and this will be next-to-impossible to fix if the cake does not get any bigger while the number of people who want a slice continues to grow.

Many parts of the country and many groups continue to have very unequal access to higher education and this will be next-to-impossible to fix if the cake does not get any bigger while the number of people who want a slice continues to grow. The current situation scares me rigid not only as a policy wonk but also as a parent, for my children are 10 and 12, and might be expected to enter higher education in the early 2030s, after what is currently set to be a period in which we could underfund universities and control places. A conservative set of assumptions shows we need at least 350,000 extra full-time places just in England by 2035. The next session at today’s conference rightly focuses on Ucas’s prediction that there will soon be one million applicants each year.

Advice for those currently filling in their Ucas forms

Having noted the political backdrop and the recent challenges in admissions, and having urged you both to encourage Oxbridge to expand and to oppose any reintroduction of student number controls, let me end with three potential bits of advice for this year’s applicants. Before I am accused of plagiarism, I should say that these three bits of advice are very heavily based on a recent must-read article by Mary Curnock Cook, who knows more about UK university admissions than just about anyone else as a former Chief Executive of UCAS. She is also, incidentally, a Trustee of HEPI.

First, don’t tell your pupils to put all their eggs in the Russell Group basket. There are lots of wonderful universities in the Russell Group – I am a governor of one and I have attended three Russell Group universities myself (although the Russell Group didn’t actually exist when I was an undergraduate, for it is nothing like as ancient as people tend to think, having been founded only in 1994). As a policy wonk, I know what a very useful purpose the Russell Group serves as the voice of research-intensive universities. But it is equally important not to put too much store on membership of a self-selecting club. This does not provide an objective measure of educational quality nor does it tell you very much about which university is best for any individual pupil.

When teachers tell me they want their students to go to a Russell Group institution, I like to ask them to list the 24 Russell Group members and they are often quite uncertain which institutions the list actually includes. St Andrews isn’t in it, for example. Bristol is in but Bath is not. Cardiff is in but Swansea isn’t. Liverpool is in but Lancaster is not.

If you want to know how random membership is, consider this story about Leicester University from David Willetts’s book A University Education:

the Vice-Chancellor of Leicester University was invited to join the Russell Group when it was created but he did not think it would be right to join one specific mission group when he was representing all of Britain’s universities as president of Universities UK—little did he realise that membership of the Russell Group would become a shorthand for the quality of a university.

The lesson from all this for today in autumn 2022 is to spread the five Ucas applications across a range of options. Even if a student has high predicted grades, Mary’s advice is not to restrict yourself solely to Russell Group members but also to include a couple of non-Russell Group providers on the list.

If you are worried that this means your pupils could end up at a less prestigious university, just remember that one reason why Russell Group universities are so prestigious is that a high proportion of independent school pupils opt for them. In other words, these applicants are part of what provides the sheen and they could take their polish elsewhere.

one reason why Russell Group universities are so prestigious is that a high proportion of independent school pupils opt for them. In other words, these applicants are part of what provides the sheen and they could take their polish elsewhere.

The second piece of advice for this year’s applicants is that, unlike in some recent years, it is important to take the Ucas insurance option seriously. In the past, picking the insurance offer has sometimes felt like an opportunity to choose a similar university to your firm choice so that you can hedge your bets on which of the two institutions is more likely to admit you with missed grades. This year, it is wise to try and ensure that your insurance offer comes with lower grade requirements as universities have become less likely to squeeze those who miss their offers in under the bar, especially for the most competitive courses, and in part to reduce the risk of needing to rely on Clearing, which has become more squeezed.

The third piece of advice is on a rather different topic: if you want to ensure your pupils go on to have a good time in higher education, then ensure they think as much about their accommodation as their course. This has always been good advice, as not all accommodation is the same. But it is especially important now that we are returning to a situation where, in many towns and cities throughout the UK, there are too few student beds. The experts say we need 30,000 additional beds each year, but we are getting only 10,000 to 15,000 as the deteriorating economic backdrop and threats of overregulation make building new student halls less attractive. Simultaneously, some landlords have found Airbnb and recent graduates to be a more enticing prospect than student tenants. We will have more to say about this on our website next week, so do sign up to receive all our daily blogs at the bottom of our homepage at https://www.hepi.ac.uk

To conclude, I have:

  • suggested the amount of funding available to educate each student is likely to continue being stretched, which will impact on the student experience;
  • urged you to use your position of influence in education to encourage expansion at the very most selective institutions and to oppose the reimposition of student number caps; and
  • encouraged those hoping to enrol as freshers in autumn 2023 to cast their nets wide and to think as much about where they will live as what they will study.

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