Population number crunch

Demographics suggest that some universities may have to rely more than ever on overseas students for financial stability

July 4, 2013

Worried about student numbers? Even if you are not, chances are your university is, as fluctuating demand combines with a dip in the number of 18-year-old Britons, while a net-migration-slashing home secretary pollutes – if not poisons – the well overseas.

In our cover feature this week, Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, considers the symbiotic relationship between demographics and higher education in an age when the global population is forecast to peak at 11 billion by 2100.

It’s a fascinating picture, with all the projections (and historical evidence) pointing to a far more complex cycle of cause and effect than one might imagine.

But to take a narrow perspective, there are two key demographic trends for UK universities to grapple with right now: the end of steady annual rises in the number of young people emerging from schools and sixth-forms at home, and the continued growth in the number of potential students worldwide.

India has an exploding population, a long-standing affinity for British education, and a bad taste in its mouth as a result of current visa policy

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or even an executive policy adviser) to suggest that the key to addressing the former may lie in making the most of the latter.

As far as home students are concerned, there will be concern about a permanent downturn among those universities already struggling to attract the same quota as they did under the previous funding and regulatory regime.

Even though David Willetts, the universities and science minister, insists that he is an “expansionist”, there must be doubts about whether the current funding regime, which many think is unsustainable, will allow significant growth in numbers any time soon.

With current estimates suggesting that more than a third of fee loans will never be repaid, the government is not in a position to commit to subsidising ever-increasing sums.

One solution proposed last month by the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education would be to exploit the demographic dip and commit simply to maintaining the current proportion of 18- to 21-year-olds in higher education. This would lead to an overall fall in numbers, saving between £1.5 billion and £3 billion over seven years, the IPPR says, while maintaining opportunity for young people.

It might be a politically palatable solution, but if the total number of home students drops, universities that struggle to recruit will quickly find themselves in financial difficulty unless they can make up the shortfall elsewhere, making the immigration issue all the more pressing.

A glance at some projected growth figures in student numbers overseas, as set out in our feature, underlines what a mistake it would be to underestimate the shifting demand for higher education worldwide.

India is the classic case, with an exploding population, a growing higher education participation rate, a long-standing affinity for British education, and a bad taste in its mouth as a result of current visa policy.

And this at a time when, as Dorling puts it, “one thing we can be sure of…is that demand for young people is about to grow in the West”. The ageing population dictates that young people are “becoming more precious”, and it’s particularly true for universities: just ask those who saw demand fall unexpectedly last year.


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