After years of almost continuous expansion, these are worrying times for universities throughout the developed world. While the demand for places from overseas applicants remains generally buoyant, it is beginning to prove more difficult to fill places with home students. Enrolments at German universities are down 3.5 per cent and Australia has registered a small increase after three years of decline. The same trends are evident elsewhere in Europe and North America, partly for demographic reasons, but perhaps also because mass higher education is reaching the limits of easy recruitment among its natural constituency. The scope for widening participation among underrepresented groups is such that saturation point remains a long way off in most countries, but there are no guarantees of success in that process.
The rosy picture of UK enrolments contained in reports this week by the Higher Education Statistics Agency is slightly misleading because the figures cover the year before top-up fees hit English students. Faced with the luxury of an 8 per cent increase in the number of applications, admissions officers built in a cushion against almost certain decline in 2006. The 3 per cent increase in full-time enrolments was duly followed by a marginally bigger drop in the current academic year. For all the caveats, however, it is clear that UK universities at least have more breathing space than most of their counterparts elsewhere. Even the distribution of students between subject areas remains remarkably stable in the latest statistics. Science subjects, for example, which have been the object of national concern, show a 2 per cent increase in the number of undergraduate enrolments, building on rises in each of the two preceding years. Only computer science suffered a serious decline, although engineering and technology also saw numbers drop over the four years ending in 2005-06.
With the House of Commons Select Committee on Education beginning a wide-ranging inquiry this month and the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit also engaged in preliminary discussions on higher education, there is no excuse for a lack of direction. But universities themselves - and their funding councils - will also be looking at the next decade with some trepidation.
There have been few shining examples from other countries of how to manage demographic decline (other than by redoubling efforts to recruit more overseas students). The UK approach should surely be characterised by still greater diversity. Many universities will have a sufficiently strong appeal to continue relying on their traditional clientele, but there will not be enough of these candidates to fill the entire sector. Early and imaginative planning will be the key to prosperity.