Latest admissions data underline the risks facing lower-ranking UK universities, as declining student numbers leave their finances in precarious positions.
Figures published after the release of A-level results show that universities with the lowest entry standards were continuing to lose out to more prestigious institutions in the enrolments battle. According to Ucas, four days after exam results were published, the number of UK-domiciled students accepting places at “lower-tariff” institutions was down 5,700 (3.8 per cent) on last year. This comes on the back of a 5.6 per cent drop the previous year.
The fall in admissions to middle-tariff institutions so far this year, of 3,220, or 2.3 per cent, was in line with the overall decline of 2.2 per cent. In contrast, enrolment at the most selective institutions was down by only 1,040 (0.9 per cent).
Writing in last week’s Times Higher Education, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, warned that another poor recruitment period could tip some universities “over the edge”.
Speaking to THE after the latest figures were released, Mr Hillman suggested that there was a real risk that these fears could be realised.
“For institutions who have lost part-time students, have lost mature students, and are now losing 18-year-old student numbers, it’s a point at which the quality of leadership and how much money you have in the bank will really matter,” he said.
The importance of clearing to university recruitment is underlined by Ucas data that show that growing numbers of students are choosing to apply to enter higher education after results are released, rather than tying themselves to a provider prior to results day. On 20 August, the number of students applying direct to clearing was up 13.7 per cent on last year.
John Raftery, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, which has significantly reduced its enrolment in recent years, admitted that clearing this year was “more stressful than ever”. The shrinking 18-year-old population, the capital’s competitive market and London Met’s position as a lower-tariff university mean that “we have to compete quite hard”, Professor Raftery said.
“We talk about student numbers being ‘sucked up and sucked out’ because students are now able to take their three Cs to a more middle-ranking institution,” he said.
Professor Raftery said that London Met had refocused its activities in response to declining student numbers, focusing on graduate employability in particular, and had managed to increase its firm acceptances by 7 per cent so far this year.
The Ucas data show that more prestigious universities are also better placed to augment their cohorts with international recruits. Non-European Union recruitment was down by about 1 per cent at lower- and middle-tier universities on 20 August, but was up by 6.7 per cent at the most prestigious institutions.
Mark Corver, a former director of analysis and research at Ucas, who has now founded the DataHE consultancy, agreed that, when it came to the outlook for universities, “a lot would depend on what happens in the next two weeks”.
However, the immediate data were “quite strong” given the context of shrinking student applications, he argued. Lower-tariff institutions, who “looked set for a dreadful year with a 7 per cent fall in applications and heavy exposure to weak mature and BTEC pools”, managed to minimise that decline, Dr Corver said. The concern will be whether they can carry this loss-limiting performance through clearing, as “every student recruited this year is trebly precious”.