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Directions of travel

Mary Curnock Cook warns that Ucas’s Journey to a Million campaign may be misplaced

The January deadline for students to apply for courses through Ucas is slightly later than usual this year, coming at the end of the month. This will leave us waiting until mid or late February to get a readout of how university applications are faring for the 2024 admissions cycle.

Typically, January deadline data is well over 90 per cent complete, so it provides a reliable forecast of demand, especially as it encompasses most school leaver applications, which continue to make up the bulk of domestic undergraduate recruitment.

In 2023, the number of applicants fell as applications from prospective mature students dropped off in a buoyant employment market and school leavers reacted to a combination of bad PR around universities, the previous year’s drop in numbers being placed at their first-choice institutions and restrained grade awards as standards were brought back to 2019 levels.

While mature application numbers are likely to continue to be depressed in 2024, we might anticipate buoyant demand from school leavers as demographic growth of between 2 and 3 per cent adds to an expected small rise in participation from that growing population.

However, the sector may want to prepare itself for a different picture. This year could see softening demand from school leavers, although—given the relatively large population increase in this age group—it would take a big shock to turn applicant numbers negative.

On the fence applicants

Frequent messaging from government about low-quality courses, Mickey Mouse degrees, and low or negative salary premiums, and high awareness of the rising cost of learning will primarily affect what I think of as the ‘marginal applicant’. These are applicants who are on the fence about whether to go to university, have doubts about their level 3 qualification outcomes and may well be researching alternatives, such as employment, apprenticeships or other training opportunities.

Marginal applicants for 2024 will have taken their GCSEs in 2022, when partial restoration of pre-pandemic grade standards resulted in fewer students progressing to level 3 studies. They are also more likely to be the first in their family to consider university, and more likely to come from lower-income backgrounds. This suggests the unwelcome prospect of further reversals in diversity.

Some decline in numbers of marginal applicants happened in 2023, with school leaver enrolments to lower tariff universities falling by 5 per cent (although still above the 2019 pre-pandemic level) while, by contrast, enrolment of school leavers for medium tariff universities fell by just 1 per cent and for higher tariff universities was flat.

Unlikely destination

This cautious view about demand for higher education contrasts with Ucas’s recent upbeat Journey to a Million campaign.

The potential for higher education to see a million applicants was first mooted in 2022 as an outcome for 2025. It still feels to me an unlikely outcome, even by 2030—the date that the Ucas journey to a million campaign currently suggests.

More robust data modelling based on historical trends may suggest something closer to 800,000 applicants by that date. But historical trends don’t factor in the cost-of-living crisis, which has made higher education less affordable for students, and arguably less enjoyable too, given that more than half of them have to take on onerous part-time work commitments.

The widening gap between the real cost of living and accommodation at university and the available maintenance loan means that today’s university experience is very different from that of just a few years ago, with many more students having to commute to their local university as well as take on part-time jobs.

Shifting landscape

These are still projections about numbers of applicants rather than income-generating enrolments. With domestic tuition fees frozen and evidence that teaching these students is loss-making, universities will be increasingly cautious about whom they admit and on what conditions. Meanwhile, international enrolments are under pressure from changes to visa rules and the ability to bring dependants to the UK.

Add to this downbeat picture the prospect that students may take on board the idea that they don’t have to go to university straight after school or college, and that they can get loans to achieve qualifications on a modular basis through the Lifelong Learning Entitlement (LLE), and the whole landscape of undergraduate education could shift quite dramatically over the next decade.

Once the magic 2030 date is passed, the population of school leavers starts to drop again over the following decade, so 2030 represents a peak of demographic driven demand. Meanwhile, participation rates may start to distribute more evenly across students in their 20s, 30s or even 40s taking advantage of LLE freedoms and more AI-driven online learning opportunities.

Universities have always been prone to optimism bias in their enrolment predictions. This was confirmed recently by the Universities UK sponsored report from PwC that noted “provider optimism around sustained international student growth” while suggesting caution about domestic demand.

The authors suggest: “In the near term, the sector should be mindful of the effects on participation posed by external pressures; for example, the escalating cost of living and a sentiment that a conventional university degree might not always be the most suitable path.”

However, in the long term, the PwC report notes that “expectations are that participation rates will remain strong, given the need for skills will remain critical for the economy”.

Let’s hope that policymakers recognise this need for skills too and find a way to fund universities and students in a sustainable way.

Mary Curnock Cook CBE is chair of the Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology and also chairs Pearson’s UK qualifications business. She is a former CEO of Ucas.