Several London post-92s see falls in battle for students

Analysis of first Ucas figures after scrapping of student number controls reveals the ups and downs in recruitment as government aims for ‘rapid market share shifts’

January 28, 2016
Silhouettes of students walking in university hallway
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The government’s removal of student number controls has led some English universities to increase their student intake by more than 20 per cent in a year, while others have recorded drops of up to 10 per cent, with larger institutions in London seeing a particular decline.

Analysis by Times Higher Education of figures published last week by Ucas on UK student total acceptances for 2015 shows that Russell Group institutions such as the University of Liverpool, Queen Mary University of London, the University of Nottingham and the University of Warwick all capitalised on the scrapping of number controls to expand their intakes by more than 10 per cent compared with 2014.

A spokesman for London Metropolitan University said that there was “no denying that the removal of the student number controls has had an impact on post-92 universities”.

However, there was no simple contrast between the recruitment performance of older and newer universities – the post-92 institutions Middlesex University, Bath Spa University and Oxford Brookes University were among the 10 bigger institutions recording the highest rises in the number of acceptances.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute and former special adviser to David Willetts in his time as universities minister, said: “The removal of student number controls was meant to see students shift around the sector and change their decision-making, and it does seem to be having that effect.”

The full removal of student number controls, implemented ahead of the 2015-16 academic year, was originally announced by George Osborne, the chancellor, in the 2013 Autumn Statement.

The aim, in conjunction with the forthcoming teaching excellence framework, is to create a more marketised higher education system driven by student choice, in which universities compete with each other to recruit.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, has spoken of creating “the capacity for more rapid market share shifts between universities”.

But the policy could also mean financial instability for institutions experiencing successive years of falling recruitment, potentially leading to worries over job security for staff.

Caveats around the Ucas data on acceptances include the fact that the figures are for numbers of acceptances by students, not for final enrolments.

And a drop in recruitment may, wholly or in part, be the result of strategies taken by institutions to enrol fewer students, with the aim of improving quality or league table performance.

‘Conscious decision to recruit fewer’

A spokesman for Kingston University, which had the biggest fall in the number of acceptances (down 12 per cent), said that in recent years it has “focused on recruiting fewer, but higher quality, potential students and has made a conscious decision to maintain its entry requirements to ensure it attracts those students most likely to thrive and succeed”.

However, a spokesman for London Met (the second biggest faller, down 11 per cent) said: “There’s no denying that the removal of the student number controls has had an impact on post-92 universities, with many of our ‘competitor’ institutions in London having experienced a similar drop in applications. In response, we’ve had to be even more focused on stressing the benefits of universities like ours, including more classroom contact time and additional support for students.”

A spokesman for the University of Southampton, which saw the fourth biggest rise in acceptances with a 24.7 per cent increase, said that the figures were “firmly in line with the university’s planned growth for 2015-16 following the lifting of undergraduate recruitment restrictions”.

He added that the institution believed that this was “evidence of our incoming students’ response to our reputation for quality as reflected in our excellent Quality Assurance Agency review, our much-improved National Student Survey results and our continued rise in league table positions in recent months, among a number of factors”.

Liverpool, another Russell Group member to record a big rise, had set out to boost its profile through its “Challenge Convention” advertising campaign.

Claire Brown, the university’s director of marketing, said: “The increase in student numbers can be attributed to a number of factors – an increased presence in schools and colleges; the significant investment we made in our ‘Challenge Convention’ campaign, which was designed to grow numbers at our open days; the significant investment in the look and feel of our campus, such as our new accommodation buildings; and the popularity of the city of Liverpool, which is frequently cited as one of the world’s most exciting cities.”

Middlesex, a post-92 institution and the biggest riser, did not provide a comment before THE’s deadline.

Mr Hillman said that the figures suggested that “campus universities, like the University of East Anglia, Sussex, Keele and Bath Spa, now look particularly attractive. On the other side of the coin, newer universities in London are finding it harder to keep their numbers up.”

London is “perhaps the most exciting city in the world – which is why so many international students are attracted to it; but it is also a very expensive and sometimes challenging place in which to live and study,” he added. “Overall, these figures show to me that the quality and affordability of the all-round student experience is becoming more and more important.”

What effect has end of student number controls had?

10 universities with largest recruiting gains

Institution Acceptances 2015 Acceptances 2014 % change 2014 to 2015
Middlesex University 4,725 3,505 34.8
University of East Anglia 3,355 2,545 31.8
Aston University 2,995 2,290 30.8
University of Southampton 5,195 4,165 24.7
University of Sussex 3,080 2,525 22
Soas, University of London 770 640 20.3
Keele University 2,445 2,040 19.9
Bath Spa University 2,390 2,005 19.2
Oxford Brookes University 4,255 3,570 19.2
University of Liverpool 5,035 4,310 16.8

10 universities with largest recruiting falls

Institution Acceptances 2015 Acceptances 2014 % change 2014 to 2015
Kingston University 4,810 5,465 −12.0
London Metropolitan University 3,180 3,575 −11.0
London South Bank University 3,240 3,605 −10.1
York St John University 1,540 1,705 −9.7
Southampton Solent University 2,860 3,160 −9.5
Plymouth University 4,815 5,310 −9.3
University of East London 3,655 4,030 −9.3
University of Sunderland 2,245 2,470 −9.1
University of Bedfordshire 2,770 3,005 −7.8
University of Westminster 3,825 4,145 −7.7

Source: Ucas.
Notes: Total acceptances of UK students at English Hefce-funded institutions only. Small specialist institutions excluded.

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