Revealed: winners and losers in student numbers game

Figures show effect of £9,000 tuition fees and relaxation of student number controls

January 23, 2014

Source: Alamy

Squeeze them in: rapid increases in the student intake at some universities after number controls were relaxed have led to concerns that the student experience may suffer

Some English universities have increased their student intake by up to 40 per cent since tuition fees were raised to £9,000, while a number of post-92 institutions have lost more than 20 per cent of their entrants.

Ucas figures on 2013 full-time UK student acceptances, published on 23 January, can be compared with those from 2011 for an insight into how institutions have fared under two years of the new system, which also relaxed student number controls on high-grade students.

Aston University and Russell Group members University College London, the University of Bristol and the University of Exeter have all used the AAB/ABB system to expand numbers rapidly, boosting their intake by more than 35 per cent in two years, according to the Ucas figures.

Birkbeck, University of London, which specialises in part-time courses, saw the highest percentage rise, but from a low base.

However, post-92 universities London Metropolitan, Bedfordshire, Bolton, East London and Liverpool Hope have all lost more than 20 per cent of undergraduate entrants when compared with 2011, the last year of the old system (although London Met recorded a 5 per rise when compared with 2012 while some Bedfordshire students are now counted against partner institutions). Drops such as these can represent tens of millions of pounds of lost income.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that while it was welcome “if more applicants are getting their first choice”, the figures highlighted “two risks”. Mr Hillman, who helped to shape the new system in his former role as special adviser to David Willetts, the universities minister, added: “First, popular universities could expand so rapidly that the student experience suffers. Second, other institutions could suffer from being perceived as less good than they are.”

It may be that some post-92 institutions showing big falls in acceptances actually met their student number quotas – but these quotas had been cut to create the AAB/ABB system, which benefited more selective institutions by allowing universities to recruit unlimited numbers of students with top A-level grades.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the university group Million+, said that the variations in acceptances were down to “fee and funding reforms and market incentives that have favoured some students and institutions more than others”. For institutions that traditionally recruit many high-grade students, she added, “the market was effectively rigged in their favour”.

The Ucas figures can only indicate trends because they are for acceptances rather than final student enrolments, and some groups of students are not counted.

One of the big winners, Aston, introduced a scholarship for AAB students in 2012-13 that, by offering fee discounts, also aimed to make the university eligible for more places under the “margin” system designed to promote lower-cost institutions.

Helen Higson, Aston’s deputy vice-chancellor, said: “We believe our excellence in teaching, investment in our campus facilities, and strong student support and employability records have all proved successful in attracting new high-quality applicants.”

At UCL, 200 extra students brought in by the 2012 merger with the School of Pharmacy were a factor in the rise, with the institution playing down talk of a formal expansion strategy.

Arguably, comparing the 2013 acceptance figures with 2012 rather than 2011 offers a more timely indication of the most current trends.

Only one Russell Group institution (Exeter) makes the top five institutions seeing the biggest growth in UK student numbers compared with 2012. Oxford Brookes University, a post-92 institution, makes the top five after increasing acceptances by 26 per cent.

And the University of East Anglia, a pre-92 university, is among the five institutions recording the biggest drops in acceptances since 2012 – down 8 per cent. David Giles, UEA’s head of admissions, said the institution’s registration figures for 2013-14, which included European Union students, were up 3 per cent on the previous year. “There is no direct correlation between Ucas acceptances and registered students at UEA,” he added.

Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading and former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, said the Ucas figures highlighted “that the days of all universities seeking salvation by relying on the home undergraduate market are numbered”.

He added that universities “need to raise their game in building their international and postgraduate profile, while diversifying their income through commercial activities and seeking finance from new sources”.

Reading was flat on student numbers over the two years. Sir David cautioned that under the government’s plan to abolish student number controls there will be “even more winners and losers in future”. He added: “These figures show we still need to work with ministers to get the details right” on the policy.

Meanwhile, in the far less marketised systems of Scotland and Wales, where governments take a greater role in allocating places, there were also divergences in fortunes.

Institutions recording significant growth included Swansea University (UK acceptances up 30 per cent on 2012) and Heriot-Watt University (up 26 per cent), while those seeing falls included the University of Aberdeen (down 35 per cent) and Edinburgh Napier University (down 16 per cent).

Ups and downs: 2013 compared with 2011
Largest % rises and falls in acceptances of UK full-time undergraduates in English institutions

RankBiggest rises%
Source: Ucas
Note: UK students only. Does not include private providers. Years denote Ucas cycle
1Birkbeck, University of London308
2Aston University41
3University College London40
4University of Bristol36
5University of Exeter35
Biggest falls 
1London Metropolitan University–38
2University of Bedfordshire
3University of Bolton–25
4=University of East London–22
4=Liverpool Hope University–22

Climbers and fallers: 2013 compared with 2012
Largest % rises and falls in acceptances of UK full-time undergraduates in English institutions

RankBiggest rises%
Source: Ucas
Note: UK students only. Does not include private providers. Years denote Ucas cycle
1Birkbeck, University of London74
2University of Surrey37
3University of Exeter29
4Oxford Brookes University26
5Loughborough University25
Biggest falls 
1University of Bedfordshire–15
2Harper Adams University–12
3University of Huddersfield–11
4University of Brighton–9
5University of East Anglia–8

Download THE’s table of Ucas results and Ucas’ full table of results

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