Student cohorts at a number of English universities located in smaller cities and towns appear to be shifting towards domestic students, new analysis suggests.
Changes to full-time enrolments since 2014-15, analysed by Times Higher Education, show that about 30 institutions saw their UK student numbers grow while international enrolments (from within and outside the European Union) fell by an average of 17 per cent.
The majority are located away from major cities and some are noticeably close to areas of the country that had a high proportion of people voting leave in the Brexit referendum, such as parts of the North East and Midlands.
Examples include the University of Lincoln, where international full-time undergraduate and postgraduate enrolments fell by around 450 students from 2014-15 to 2017-18 but UK numbers grew by more than 2,000 students, and the University of Sunderland, where international enrolments fell by nearly 1,500 and UK numbers rose by about 1,600.
It also comes during a period when student recruitment in the UK from outside the European Union has effectively stalled, a trend that has been blamed on visa restrictions imposed by the government in 2012 which have been only partially lifted.
Large research-intensive institutions from the Russell Group, which have been less affected by visa issues, are almost all absent from the list and have expanded both UK and international student numbers.
Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, said some of the universities shifting towards more domestic intakes appeared to be in areas with lower higher education participation. “In other words there’s plenty of slack to take up,” he said, compared with higher participation areas in London and other big cities.
This could be positive news, Professor Westwood said, if it indicated that these universities were becoming “more ‘civic’ and boosting access and qualification levels in traditionally lower participation areas. It’s also good news for local economies as the supply of high-level skills should increase too, if a decent proportion of graduates can be retained in these towns and cities.”
The data show there is a separate group of around 10 English institutions that have seen enrolments drop over the past three years for both domestic and international students.
Mark Corver, co-founder of DataHE and a former director of analysis and research at Ucas, said UK student recruitment had become profoundly fragmented among institutions in recent years as the impacts of policies such as the lifting of the undergraduate number cap unfolded.
One aspect of this was that university location had become a more important driver of recruitment than it was when student number caps existed, presenting some institutions with major challenges.
Some universities were originally “conceived” as an “intervention” under a more regulated recruitment system to aid access to higher education in certain areas, and under a marketised system “those institutions might struggle because they might not have a coherent local catchment” of students, Dr Corver said.
He added that unique interactions between participation rates and demographics in different areas also meant “you can have two institutions that look superficially similar” although local conditions meant “one could be struggling and one could be thriving, but not really because of anything a university’s management is or isn’t doing”.
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