Student numbers are at risk as UK demographics shift

Universities will have to ‘seize new markets’ to remain competitive. Rebecca Attwood reports

March 20, 2008

Universities face a shortfall of 70,000 students by the end of the next decade, as a result of a drop in the number of young people in the UK.

On current demographic trends, the full-time undergraduate student population of UK higher education institutions will fall by 4.6 per cent by 2020, or 70,000 full-time under­graduate places, according to an analysis for Universities UK.

One of the authors of the report, The Future Size and Shape of the HE Sector in the UK, says universities will have to “seize new markets” for older, part-time, work-based and overseas students.

The report also predicts stiffer competition for students between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as demographic changes vary between regions.

The report forms part of a series of seven reviews, commissioned last month by Universities Secretary John Denham, into the long-term future of higher education in Britain.

It predicts that the 2020 UK dip will have reversed by 20, by which time total student numbers will be up by 2.1 per cent, with the biggest growth in part-time undergraduates and full-time postgraduates. But this recovery masks long-term prob-lems in Scotland, which may see full-time undergraduate numbers drop 8.4 per cent by 20, as well as in Wales (down 4.9 per cent) and Northern Ireland (down 13.1 per cent) – compared with a 2.9 per cent rise in England.

Past experience has shown that perceived demographic threats can lead to universities developing new student markets, according to ­the report’s authors, Nigel Brown and Brian Ramsden.

Universities Secretary John Denham has cited falling numbers of young people as a key reason for universities to embrace the ­Government’s skills agenda, which aims to improve workforce skills.

The response from Government, employers and universities to this agenda will be “critical” to the level of demand for part-time higher education, the analysis says.

“Universities have shown themselves remarkably adept at seizing new opportunities and new markets,” said Mr Brown.

“If you look back to the 1980s when similar demography was ­predicted, the sector actually expanded faster than it had ever done.”

The more severe demographic downturn in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could lead to increased cross-border flows, especially to universities in Scotland and Wales as they seek to sustain their student numbers.

“The tuition fee policies being adopted by the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly Government could be argued to be a precursor of increased competition for full-time undergraduate students between the countries of the UK,” says the report.

It projects that the number of overseas students from outside the EU will increase by 4 per cent.

Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the demographic downturn would not necessarily mean a reduction in demand for higher education.

“First, as the report says, there may be an increase in demand from older and part-time students. Second, there may be continuing increase in demand from international students.

“But the biggest unknown is if there will be an increase in demand from those groups that are at present underrepresented in higher education – disadvantaged social groups, and boys. It would take only small increases in participation by these groups to more than offset the declines that are otherwise expected; and for that to occur we would need to see improving achievement at school.”

The report assumes no significant increase in the proportion of young people gaining level 3 qualifications, because it says the proportion of 17-year-olds achieving two A-levels has stalled in recent years.

Student shortfall not a concern, says hefce

The higher education sector has 10,000 fewer full-time equivalent students than the Government’s target figure for the year.

Board papers released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England show the 2007-08 baseline of 1.14 million fundable FTE students falling short of a planned 1.15 million.

The paper says: “This is an estimate by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills of the out-turn student numbers for the current financial year 2007-08… and implies a shortfall of 10,000 FTE against a planned total of 1.15 million. If true, this means the sector has delivered 10,000 fewer students than the Government expected.”

It says that annual growth targets set by the DIUS indicate a goal of 20,000 “core fundable” FTE students in 2008-09 – including 10,000 for next year and a further 10,000 enrolments not achieved this year.

Mario Ferelli, head of funding at Hefce, said the variance was not a matter of concern.

He said: “If an institution has been given funding for growth, then we give them a target. If they don’t hit those targets then we take the money back. It is worth remembering that this is 10,000 out of around 1.2 million.”

He said the shortfall was “a little on the high side”, and that the annual variance is usually between 5,000 and 7,000 enrolments.

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