Fatigued from bust, planning for boom

Posted: 20 Feb 2020 - 14:13
Planning for book
Just after the turn of the millennium, couples in the UK, for some reason, put their family plans on hold. From an average of 1.84 children per family in 1990, by 2002 this has fallen by 10% to 1.64. Whilst this decline in fertility doesn’t seem drastic, nor does it represent a threat to societies and population, it has had a significant impact on the higher education sector.

Universities across the country have had one eye fixated on the 2018 – 2022 period for some years, knowing that a 10% reduction in 18 year olds, combined with fee rises, removal of admissions caps, and huge leaps in competition throughout the sector, would create turbulence [source].

At the beginning of 2020, we now are in the eye of the storm. 18 year old numbers have fallen by almost 150,000 in the last decade, and some universities have seen acceptances reduce by more than half. Those providers feeling the pinch have looked more and more to the international market, the part-time market, and the mature market [source].

But the skies are beginning to clear for those with a longer-term view. From 2021, the number of 18 year olds will now increase year-on-year. By 2030, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) predicts there will be 200,000 more potential undergraduates than there are today [source]. Other studies paint an even brighter picture, with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) predicting at least a 300,000 increase, even taking into account the potential student loss due to Brexit. Their report also says that if the male/female divide for degree application closes, this figure could be closer to 500,000 [source]. 

Whatever the number, it’s clear that higher education providers now face a fight on another front. With many having streamlined their portfolios and made cuts, to protect their positions, they are staring down what might become their busiest decade in recent history. How will they cope?

Many recruitment departments were thrust into uncharted waters at the beginning of the demographic dip. Now, they must refocus to take advantage of huge national demand.

The Open University, lauded for its innovative and flexible approach to higher education, says other universities should follow its lead. Not only for the sake of accessibility, not only for the sake of widening participation, not only for the sake of reducing the carbon footprint of the sector. Higher education has never been more competitive than it currently is, and an increase in demand is unlikely to completely offset the impact of other factors like fees, caps, and battles on the international stage. Universities must think differently about how to attract and retain new students, and The Open University’s technological innovations have allowed it to teach subjects as diverse as classics and engineering, without requiring any physical relocation for its students [source].

This ‘anywhere’ approach comes into even sharper focus when you look deeper into the ‘boom’ data and realise that the growth in 18 year olds is going to differ massively by region. London’s growth is more than twice that of the North East’s, for example. Not everybody can rely on the figures to solve all their problems. An online approach may help those universities in areas of the UK less likely to experience a surge [source].

Universities which don’t have the capacity to create new models entirely must focus on simply getting their share of the pie. Whilst there have been some controversial marketing tactics during the demographic dip, the sector has at least woken up to a new type of engagement.

Whichever road is taken, universities should now be fully immersed in planning for the near future. One way or another, they have coped with the demographic dip, and will hopefully come out the other side. Marketing, recruitment, admissions, timetabling, student support, and other departments need to convene and assess the potential impact of a 25%+ increase in demand for their services. The challenge of a harvest is sometimes as difficult as that of a blight.

Matt Criddle

Head of Education

UCAS Media

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