The UK’s university sector has a bad case of the jitters, with one of the symptoms being the assumption that all news is going to be bad news, especially when it comes to Ucas reporting.
A shrinking pool of 18-year-olds (still falling at about 2.5 per cent a year) is at the root of this anxiety, along with the uncertainties caused by Brexit, a declining interest from mature students and a general sense that attitudes to the costs and value of higher education are changing.
Recent data seem to have confirmed the worst fears: a 4 per cent decline in applications in 2016, a dismal round of clearing last summer and, this week, the latest figures from Ucas showing another 0.9 per cent reduction in the total number of applications.
The danger now is not really any of these, mostly temporary, issues in terms of the overall numbers, but the threat from knee-jerk cutbacks and nervous planning and strategy-making. The sector instead needs to be building its capacity for a coming surge. Preparation for this is the essential job of university leaders today – even though many will not necessarily be in post when the benefits start to accrue.
The most telling figures from the end-of-cycle Ucas data demonstrate that interest and commitment to university education is still growing, and is stronger than ever in some ways. Indeed, 18-year-olds are more likely to apply to higher education than ever before.
Despite the daily news of wrangling, applications from the European Union are up by 3.4 per cent; and the number of international applicants was also the highest ever.
The appeal of higher education continues to reach new groups – with record levels of students from disadvantaged backgrounds (22.6 per cent) applying. This is in the context of the prospect of another baby boom heading our way. Numbers of 18-year-olds will be up by 10 per cent by 2025, and by 20 per cent in 2030, with the effects beginning to be felt after just one more academic cycle.
Still, there is the feeling of instability. Throughout this period, higher education needs to be able to keep its mid-career staff engaged; these people, the kind who will become future leaders, must be thinking and talking in terms of what lies ahead.
That means continuing to plan for growth, attracting new academic staff in general and looking to develop facilities and capability. Slimming down and limiting ambitions at this stage could have all kinds of unintended consequences.
Having to scrabble to meet a period of sudden growth could cause serious damage to the quality of the services provided and could harm the reputation of the sector as a whole. In other words, it might be possible to talk ourselves into an actual collapse in numbers.
There needs to be a focus on resilience and rigour in the management of operations. Evaluation of any spending has tended to take place solely among council members (via the finance committee), but there should be more senior managers involved, those equipped to write and evaluate business cases informed by future scenarios – seeing the need for even modest investments to require a business case.
As a sector, we should be coming together to question some of the assumptions that have such an effect on funding, widening participation and a balanced student age profile.
So given the implications of an ageing population, what age should constitute a “mature student”? This needs to be reviewed in terms of the impact on access to student loans and apprenticeships, and the potential to encourage new groups of people to access higher education and ensure equality of opportunity. This will help to ensure that there is as much peer-to-peer learning as possible from all sectors of the community.
The positive planning should include the offering provided for the new surge in 18-year-olds. For example, we need to be developing new generations of interdisciplinary programmes now so that come 2025 they are fully mature, have a track record, the right teaching expertise and a backbone of research already in place.
The Ucas figures highlight the variations in universities’ fortunes, the winners being mostly among the Russell Group and more challenges for the Million+ institutions and specialists in the arts. The east and the north of England appear to be most affected by a decline in student applications. But the changes in demographics in coming years present an opportunity for all institutions, making it more vital than ever to be thinking in terms of tailoring offerings to the needs of post-Generation Z students and investing in innovation. Every university needs to find its points of differentiation.
We need to play the long game, not lose our cool, and that means shouting about how well the sector is standing up to challenges (now and in the future), many of which are beyond its control.
Good times are coming, and we need to be ready to make the most of them when they arrive.
Zahir Irani is dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Bradford School of Management.