Only one in four new degree courses attracts enough students, study suggests

Study recommends that universities use financial and market data to assess whether programmes are likely to succeed

October 8, 2015
Male student sitting alone in lecture hall

Barely one in four new courses launched by UK universities recruits a “viable” first cohort of students, a study suggests.

Institutional staff who responded to a survey financed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) said that only 28 per cent of new programmes attracted enough students to be sustainable.

This suggests that progress has been made since the original Innovation in the Market Assurance of New Programmes (i-Map) project, which found, based on analysis of Ucas data for 2005-08, that just one in 10 new single-subject degree courses managed to recruit at least 10 to 15 students.

But Paul Coyle, a former pro vice-chancellor who directs the project, said that the original recommendation – that plans for new programmes should be assessed early on against financial and market data, overseen by senior management – was clearly still valid in light of the follow-up study.

“Although we have seen improvements and the success rate appears to have gone up, it is an inescapable fact that the figure has to get higher,” Professor Coyle said.

Unlike the analysis of Ucas data, the follow-up survey did not exactly define what “viable” was. But the original study conceded that an enrolment of 10 to 15 students was on the low side and that the minimum intake most universities would look for on an undergraduate course was 15 to 30.

Of the 119 respondents to the survey, 32 per cent said that the number of new programmes launched each year was growing. Only 16 per cent said that it was declining.

The most significant drivers for the launch of new programmes were thought to be the more competitive higher education environment (cited by 66 per cent) and a challenging recruitment situation in certain subjects (65 per cent), although other factors listed were the university’s financial sustainability (34 per cent) and recruitment difficulties for the university as a whole (36 per cent).

Sixty-seven per cent of respondents said that use of a staged approval process for new programmes was standard practice, allowing senior managers to step in before too much time and money was wasted if a course looked unlikely to succeed.

But only 39 per cent said that their institution used financial data in programme development, and just 15 per cent said that the majority of new courses launched well in advance of the recruitment cycle – a critical success factor.

Running courses with very low student numbers has an impact that goes beyond financial cost, the study says. Survey respondents said that programmes with a history of low enrolment increased the pressure to over-recruit on more popular courses, and also led to problems with student and staff dissatisfaction.

David Mackintosh, senior deputy vice-chancellor at Kingston University, said the survey demonstrated that i-Map’s original recommendations were “not only still valid but actually even more relevant than ever given the increased competition and funding squeezes most in the sector are facing”.

“As the external context is changing, the need to make the portfolio more effective by taking a more considered, evidence-based approach to generating new provision is becoming more apparent,” he said.

Survey respondents said that programmes were most likely to be launched in business and administrative studies or in creative arts and design. These disciplines, which tend to have lower course start-up costs than science subjects, were also among those where closures were reported most frequently.

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