Student demand for higher education may increase significantly over the next 20 years despite earlier forecasts of falling levels of participation, according to a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute.
Participation rates among young people are likely to increase, male academic performance may improve and demographic changes will result in more 18- to 20-year-olds from 2020, Hepi predicts.
The Demand for HE to 2029 report says the most compelling reason behind a likely increase in 18-20 participation is the large numbers of pupils who do not currently obtain a Level 3 qualification despite having better-than-average GCSEs.
About 70,000 pupils with seven or more GCSEs at grades A to C currently do not progress to Level 3 qualifications. New laws requiring pupils to continue in education or training beyond the age of 16 could have the largest impact on participation since GCSEs were introduced in 1988, the report says.
Hepi also suggests a change in the differential rates of participation between men and women as a possible source of increased demand. If males had matched females' academic performance in 2007-08, there could have been up to 130,000 more male students of all ages in higher education in that year - a figure Hepi describes as "remarkable".
If over the next 20 years males improve their performance to female levels, in 2029-30 participation would rise by an additional 144,000, rather than the 71,000 additional students predicted based on current patterns of participation. Full-time student numbers would rise from their present level of 857,000 to 1,072,000.
There is no indication at present of improvement in the performance of men. But there is no reason "in principle" why it should not occur, the Hepi report says, "in the same way as just 20 years ago males greatly outperformed females in terms of school achievement".
Similarly, if regions where pupils perform poorly at A level come in line with the national average, the number of 18-year-olds with two A levels would rise by nearly 11,000. If 84 per cent of these went on to higher education, the number of entrants would climb by 9,000 students a year. Hepi says it is "entirely plausible to believe that over the next 20 years or so there will be some reduction in the differences".
Finally, if everything else stays the same, demographic increases will drive demand. Projections from the Office for National Statistics of numbers of 18- to 20-year-olds have shifted sharply upwards from 2020, largely as a result of new assumptions about immigration from the European Union. Previous figures suggested that numbers in this group would flatten out from 2024 at about 1.9 million. Revised projections suggest they will increase up to 2029, reaching 2.1 million.
"We can be reasonably confident that total demand will increase between 2007-08 and 2010-11 by around 25,000 full-time students, that numbers will drop back to about 25,000 below 2007 levels by 2020-21 and will then increase again between 2020-21 and 2029-30 by about 110,000," the report says.