What’s changed?

February 25, 2016

Your article “Unlimited student recruitment ‘transforms’ English universities” (News, 17 February) presents some dramatic examples from Ucas data on acceptances to make the case that the government’s market reforms – and the removal of the cap – have transformed our higher education landscape. However, if you analyse not only the most recent few years of data but also look at the past decade (2006-15), then the picture is a bit more nuanced.

From 2013 to 2015, 88 (73 per cent) of the 120 providers on the Ucas list increased acceptances, 54 (45 per cent) by 10 per cent or more. At the same time, a further 23 per cent (28 providers) reduced acceptances over the three years. This offers some early evidence, perhaps, of the kind of volatility that we might expect given an open and dynamic market. However, while there is growth overall and some large movements by individual providers, acceptances have grown overall by 3.9 per cent in the first year since the removal of the numbers cap, only marginally more than the 3.4 per cent growth between 2013 and 2014. The growth figure for the period covering the three years since the new tuition fee regime and other effects of the 2011 White Paper (2013-15) is 7 per cent overall, which is unspectacular in comparison to the first three years after the previous fee hike (2006-07 to 2008-09), when total acceptance numbers grew by 16 per cent.

We can make more sense of the data if we focus both on trend data for the (mainly) selective pre-92 and (mainly) recruiting post-92 institutions. What this reveals is that over the 10-year cycle (2006-2015), post-92 institutions were more likely to grow their number of acceptances than pre-92s; however, analysis of the three-year cycle (2013-2015) shows that this pattern of growth trajectory has been reversed; pre‑92s are now more likely to grow their number of acceptances and also grew to a greater extent than post-92s.

Of the English post-92s that have experienced falling acceptances over the whole decade, in each case their high-water mark was 2011, before the fee increase – but also coinciding with the demographic decline in the number of 18-year-olds in society.

So what lessons can we draw from these data? Research that I and colleagues carried out for the Higher Education Academy in 2014 into the impact of student number controls (the AAB+ regime) showed that many pre-92s in England felt pressured to move student numbers away from programmes requiring lower Ucas tariff points to those requiring higher grades, so some of the rise in acceptances by pre‑92s since the removal of the cap may well be taking the form of a rebalancing of these numbers in what remain high-demand courses.

Changing student acceptance numbers among post-92s are harder to explain without institution-level analysis, but in some cases they will be the result of a strategic programme review followed by a decision to expand, shrink or (more likely) rebalance their offer by shifting away from one subject area and into others that may garner more applicants. This sort of market-reactive behaviour may explain the greater variance in the patterns we see among post-92s’ acceptances; Ucas acceptances data for a single year alone are not sufficient to demonstrate “transformative” change in the market.

Colin McCaig
Sheffield Hallam University

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