The age of uncertainty

Understanding demographic trends is key to the survival of universities over the next two decades, says Sir Muir Russell

March 20, 2008

There will be fewer full-time students at the age of 18, more older part-time students and larger numbers from non-traditional backgrounds. These are among the points highlighted by John Denham, the Universities Secretary, in his speech on the future of higher education last month. But he also acknowledged the potential for further growth in the international student market "so long as we continue to offer a superior university experience to what's available elsewhere".

These issues form an essential part of the review that Mr Denham has initiated in advance of next year's review of variable fees. The aim is to establish "what a world-class higher education system of the future should look like, what it should seek to achieve, and establish the current barriers to its development". Universities UK has been asked to advise Mr Denham on future demographic trends, on how universities should respond and on how the Government should facilitate change.

The invitation is well timed, as today sees the publication of the first output of a major research project commissioned by UUK on the future of our universities. The first report analyses the demographic data on the age groups most relevant to future demand for higher education in the four countries of the UK. The most recent projections from the Office for National Statistics indicate that the sector is likely to face significant demographic change over the next 20 years in the age groups from which it traditionally recruits students.

The main finding projects a sharp fall in the number of 18 to 20-year-olds up to 2019 across the UK, with a projected drop of 6 per cent overall. This equates to 70,000 full-time undergraduate places over the next ten years. The decline will be sharpest in Scotland and Northern Ireland. But the numbers are far from firm because of considerable uncertainty about future levels of migration.

On a more positive note, older age groups are projected to experience modest growth over the same period, producing some compensating increases in part-time undergraduate numbers. The projections show significant variation between the UK's four countries. By the end of the next two decades, numbers of 18 to 20-year-olds are expected to return to current levels in England, but this is not expected to be the case for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Of course, the sector has had fairly recent experience of such changes and uncertainties. For example, in 1987 a drop in the number of 18 to 20-year-olds was, as now, about to hit the sector. But several factors combined to produce a rapid expansion in undergraduate numbers. The introduction of a common qualification at 16-plus (GCSE) led to increased staying-on rates in education beyond the age of 16 in England and Wales. Another factor was the National Health Service's aim to ensure that all new entrants to nursing gained an initial higher education qualification. At the same time, new public funding methods provided incentives to many institutions to recruit additional students.

Will there be similar opportunities as our economy changes, with, for example, higher demand for well-qualified graduates and higher participation rates? Mr Denham said that "we have 6 million adults holding A levels or equivalent but no higher education qualification. And the percentage of 15-year-olds in the UK who expect to study a university-level programme is 32 per cent, one of the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - lower than Greece, lower than Turkey. Despite progress on widening participation, far too many people with the ability to study at university do not make it." What implications will improving that position have for demand? And how will circumstances vary across the UK?

The experience of the past 20 years suggests that the ability of institutions to recognise the potential threats and opportunities posed by demographic change - and to respond to them effectively - is crucial. Identifying these threats and opportunities provides the focus for the second phase of UUK's research project, currently in progress, which will examine ways in which institutions can respond to them. It will also inform the advice that we will provide the Secretary of State on the implications for policymakers.

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