Universities face student boom

August 2, 1996

Higher education is set to change beyond all recognition as individual institutions struggle to greet 25 per cent more students in the next ten years, according to an Institute of Employment Studies report.

Universities have already grown dramatically. They expanded 54 per cent between 1988/89 and 1993/94, compared to 15 per cent in the previous five years. Individually, the expansion has been even more startling. Post-1992 universities have over 90 per cent more full-time students and 150 per cent more overseas undergraduates.

There are now 1.6 million students studying in 115 universities and 68 higher education colleges. This total is expected to grow to over two million by 2003 - with the strongest surge coming before 2000 - as a consequence of more 18-year-olds, an expanded middle class, and an increase in non-traditional degree students, such as part-timers.

Meeting this demand will transform the higher education system, the report warns. There are now at least four informal groups of very different universities, says the report, commissioned by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals.

One group is the "traditional-elite" which has hardly changed. It recruits A-level students straight from school, has little vocational orientation, and will only grow along postgraduate and professional development lines.

Another group, the "quasi-old", comprises a greater number of universities which are struggling to compete with the "traditional-elite". They are developing regional and vocational strategies, but could suffer in the clash of traditional and non-traditional cultures and values.

A third type is the "quasi-new", the former polytechnics, which are seeking to emulate the older universities while still attracting non-conventional students. Then there is the "real-new". These, dubbed "the most innovative" by the IES report, are developing a local, vocational and teaching focus.

The rationale behind further expansion is not clear. The report concludes that, although employers and educationists support expansion, there is "no clearly proven economic case for producing more graduates".

The benefits of higher education could also be severely tested as traditional expectations are not satisfied. Graduate supply is expected to outstrip employer demand, and while this may not lead to greater graduate unemployment because of the so-called "displacement trend" where degree-holders take up jobs once filled by non-graduates. Nevertheless age-old graduate pay and promotion hopes are likely to be dashed.

University Challenge: student choices for the 21st century. H Connor, R Pearson, G Court, N Jagger. IES report 306, 1996. Price Pounds 35.

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