London and South East to drive increased demand for HE to 2035

Hepi forecast on future student demand provides challenge for government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda 

October 22, 2020
People queue for buying tickets from TKTS, the official London theatre ticket booth located at Leicester Square offering last minute and discount tickets for West End shows
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The Westminster government may need to tackle the huge disparity in university participation between London and the regions if it truly wants to “level up” parts of the country that feel left behind, it has been warned.

It comes as a new report on future demand for higher education in the UK suggests that students in the capital and its surrounding area could account for almost half of an extra 350,000 places that may be required in England by 2035.

The paper from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) looks at forecast demographic changes in the 18-year-old population over the next 15 years and current growth rates in participation to estimate how demand might change.

As a previous Hepi report on the topic in 2018 illustrated, a big rise in the number of 18-year-olds in England up to 2030 will fuel demand for tens of thousands of extra places over the coming years

The new report says that this demographic change will start to tail off in the 2030s. However, if participation rates continue to rise on their current trajectory, almost 110,000 extra places for new entrants will still be needed for English students each year by 2035, equating to 358,000 total places based on average typical course length.

A detailed breakdown of regional demand in England reveals that demand for more than 160,000 places will come from students in London and the South East, mainly because of already high participation rates in these areas today.

And although growing demand for higher education in every English region will fuel the need for places in universities across the country, the report shows how students in the capital are likely to fill much of this extra capacity, if it is found.

For instance, almost 10,000 places will be needed for Londoners in universities in the East and South East, almost 5,000 in the Midlands and more than 2,000 in the north of England.

Rachel Hewitt, Hepi’s director of policy and advocacy and author of the report, said there was a danger that this could be a problem for the government’s “levelling up” agenda of helping the English regions, especially if it continued with its current focus of encouraging young people into routes other than higher education.

“I don’t think that necessarily means that we need to see lower levels of people entering higher education [from] London but that...there needs to be more work done where…participation levels are much lower,” she said.

“If the [approach] is to focus on other routes instead of HE then that’s likely to lead to an even greater divide…between London and everywhere else. So, if they were to push that [policy], they may find it is working against other elements like their levelling up agenda.”

The report also warns that students from disadvantaged backgrounds would probably be those who missed out as a result of any policy measures designed to restrict access to higher education in England if the government deems the costs too high. 

Rising public costs from higher education could cause ministers to “limit the overall numbers of students entering higher education by setting student number caps, limiting the provision of courses that are deemed ‘low value’ or by introducing minimum entry standards”, it says.

“All of these would limit the number of people able to enter higher education. It is likely that the effects of any of these changes would be felt most by those students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

However, the report adds that in Scotland, increased participation in higher education would be possible without having to fund extra places because of an overall fall in the number of 18-year-olds over the time period.

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