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The perfect storm for Universities PART ONE: The demographic reality

This is the first of a two-part posting that looks ahead to the challenges facing students, their  families, universities, and the UK governments as the examination debacle recedes. PART ONE considers the situation in the context of the demographic environment with a rising student population. This will continue for the next decade as universities adjust to the unplanned sudden spike in numbers this autumn. The current policy of capping numbers and diverting students into Further Education may be explained by the oncoming rise in the population of eighteen year old students. With number caps now temporarily lifted, the rise in the university intake is generally  distributed  evenly across the ‘disadvantage’ spectrum as more than expected are accepted onto courses. The gap between the most and least advantaged remains broadly the same. With the brakes failing on using grades to limit student numbers, the pressure on university facilities, their support services and accommodation will become severe. The increased student numbers arising from the exams debacle is only part of the COVID-19 fallout and PART TWO will look at the government response to the impending impact on the least advantaged students.

Universities are staggering out of the examinations crisis this week with a feeling that they are ‘picking up the pieces’ (Anonymous university Vice Chancellor in the Guardian today ‘'We're picking up the pieces': a university vice-chancellor's diary of A-level chaos’). He or she is right, and the result is a chaotic, and unplanned, rise in the number of home-grown students. As a former member of a Russell Group university planning and finance committee, I can confirm that a university lives by the accuracy of its planning. Failure in this department can have serious knock on effects on the students and staff in the coming academic year. I am helping to alleviate the burden on former colleagues by preparing some lecture videos for the coming semester. These are for a first year course that has well exceeded the capacity of the largest lecture rooms on the campus. It can now only proceed as online lectures since duplicating face-to-face lectures will be difficult. This scenario is being  repeated across all campuses in the UK as the full enormity of the Ofqual and government’s decisions come home to roost. The blame game is ongoing with whistle blowing from Ofqual revealing the true extent of the government’s plan alongside its deception. The reality lies in the numbers of students rising as they see unemployment as a poor alternative. This is happening to a similar extent across the ‘disadvantage’ spectrum.

The demographics will not go away.

All planning, at the government and university-wide level, starts with the obvious imperative of demographic predictions. For universities, that take mostly eighteen-year old students, there is fair warning eighteen years and nine months in advance. Bearing this in mind, it seems that government policy and planning is now looking somewhat ragged. Eighteen years ago, in 2002 under a Labour government, the current population of eighteen-year old people was known. Its obvious decline up to 2020 was part of the planning. However, by 2008, the inevitable sharp rise in their numbers from 2020 became evident.

Figure 1 is taken from Mark Corver’s informative article in WONKE in 2019, ‘The great recruitment crisis: planning for rapid student number growth’, and shows the projections for England. I have added the red box to illustrate the definitive predictive window of opportunity. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) provides a fuller picture across the UK. (Principal projection - UK population in age groups 2019). This reveals that the upward trend will continue to 2032 and then begin a very slow decline that will not drop to current levels. Less certain projections are for further increases to the end of the millennium. Therefore, the pressure on the Higher Education system will not abate and will continue for a long time. It is important that, regardless of the sitting government, there must be cross party consensus on provision of education.

Government planning and policy in tatters.

The Conservative administration since 2010 has been aware of the rising number of eighteen-year old prospective students and the pressing need to meet their aspirations with planning for more resources. They cannot say they were not aware of the costs of this trend. Indeed, it might go some way to explain the current abandonment of the 50% student numbers target. The loan system in England is hurting the exchequer well into the future as numbers rise and repayments are not expected to match the outlay with a RAB charge (Resource Accounting and Budgeting (RAB) charge is the estimated cost to Government of borrowing to support the student finance system) that is now well over 45% and the government rushing to sell off the loan book to cut its losses (see Andrew McGettigan’s blogs, including in September 2019 explaining how it is now listed as a Government deficit ‘ONS confirms: loan sales now affect the deficit’).

The aspiration of 50% of young people entering our universities was translated into rapidly expanding numbers. This started as far back as Tony Blair’s speech in 1999. However, it was made in the context of a projected overall decline in numbers of eighteen-year old people that has only bottomed out this year. It is important to remember that he was also referring to Further Education with,

“Why is it only now, we have lifted the cap on student numbers and 100,000 more will go to university in the next 2 years, 700,000 more to further education. So today I set a target of 50 per cent of young adults going into higher education in the next century.” 

Transition to greater demand from UK students using a crude exam grades brake.

With numbers of candidates declining up to this year, the 50% target was half of a declining number. However, from this year, the numbers will rise as sure as night follows day. By backing out of the exams debacle, this number has been added to very early by all government administrations across the UK. The so-called focus on ‘standardisation’ was really hiding the intent to keep the numbers entering university at a manageable level without having to impose too strict a number cap. Limiting those from less advantaged backgrounds is an obvious  tragic consequence of this crude tactic. But the numbers game has been going on for decades, regardless of number caps. TEFS describes the situation for A-levels in the 1970’s with ‘A-Level Playing Field or not: Have things changed over time?’ (17th August 2018). The challenge of population change has not gone away. In England, the government was forced to limit the numbers to 5% over those of 2019, restrict student 'poaching' and offer a small compensation for the temporary loss of non-UK students. Now it is abandoning this approach as numbers rise even more on the back of regrading the exam results. It seems the main brake is failing, and the handbrake cable has snapped.

University last minute planning and long-term consequences.

Last minute planning is the last thing universities want to have inflicted on them. Yet, so far they seem to have just about coped with their own exams and online provision. Now universities, more used to planning further in advance, are adjusting fast and bringing plans for more students forward by a year or more. Those organising lecture room provision will be alerted to the actual capacity on campus being too small and overflowing. This ranges from lecture rooms, laboratories, libraries, workstations, and student facilities to the massive problem of student accommodation. A classic way to fit in more students is to reduce provision, and the decline in contact time of staff with students is proof of this in recent years. But accommodation cannot be adjusted so easily. The only saving grace – if could call it that – is the social distancing of COVID-19 control measures means that large classes must move online. The realisation that this will become a permanent fixture is hiding under the smokescreen of COVID measures. But it will cause radical and deep-rooted changes in provision unless expensive facilities are expanded quickly. Overworking staff, and moving to weekend and evening classes, is not a sustainable solution with demands rising. Moving to an extra semester in the summer, and staggered starts in January and April as well as in September, begins to look more attractive as a way out. But this could come with the reality of many more two year degree programmes that only well-heeled students could buy into (See UCAS 30th January 2019 and the case made by such a student ‘Why you should consider a two-year degree’)It seems the government has been planning this as a lower cost way out of the impending numbers crunch all along (see BBC News 30th January 2019 'Lords approves two-year degree course plan'). They might offer to explain their reasoning more openly to the electorate.

The disadvantage gap remains despite misleading headlines.

The latest UCAS figures on applications to universities across the UK reveal another increase in numbers up to June 2020 (UCAS Undergraduate Releases 2020). This has been accompanied by more students from the so called ‘least advantaged’ POLAR 1 Quintile areas. Of course, POLAR (see note* below) is not a measure of disadvantage or family income as some ministers seem to think in error. It simply defines postcodes where participation in higher education is relatively low. The headline spin on this from the Office for students is that there has been another rise in students from 'disadvantaged' backgrounds. 

“Despite all the challenges with this year’s exams, more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have been accepted into university this year than ever before………an increase of five per cent for this group compared to an average of two per cent overall”.   

However, this is 5% of a much smaller number as the percentage game is played.

Playing the percentage game. 

Some observers look at the figures and see this as a ‘sharp rise’ citing UCAS graphs that compress the Y axis to such an extent it misleads the casual observer.

Figure 2 shows one such graph from the latest applicant figures up to the end of June 2020. Its tightly compressed Y-axis gives a very misleading impression.

However, the reality is different if placed into comparative context with data from the other POLAR version 4 Quintiles. Figure 3 and table is taken from the same UCAS latest release of applicant data. Sure enough, the 1.5% rise in those from the POLAR Q1 areas translates into 1,410 more applicants than 2019. Yet, over the same period, there were 1,730 more applicants from the most advantaged higher participation Quintile 5 areas amounting to a 1.9% rise.
The rise in student numbers has been similar across each of the POLAR Quintile groups and the recent uplift of grades has not especially helped more 'disadvantaged' students. It merely released them from the previous suppression of their progress to university by erroneous application of the discredited Ofqual algorithm. Now there are further hurdles for them to clear as they move on.

Setting the scene.

This sets the scene for the many more problems to come for students and their chosen universities. With the examination chaos receding, attention is turning to the challenge of financing their studies. PART TWO will look at the developing situation and how prepared families, students, the universities, and particularly the universities might be.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

*NOTE. POLAR refers to Participation of Local Areas and there are now four versions. From the 2018/19 publication onwards, the low participation data uses the updated POLAR4 classification. The POLAR4 data is calculated in a different way to previous POLAR mappings and therefore the two datasets are not strictly comparable. For time series purposes, the indicators for 2015/16 to 2017/18 have been produced using both POLAR3 and POLAR4 data. The POLAR3 classification is formed by ranking 2001 Census Area Statistics (CAS) wards by their young participation rates for the combined 2005 to 2009 cohorts. This gives five quintile groups of areas ordered from ‘1’ (those wards with the lowest participation) to ‘5’ (those wards with the highest participation), each representing 20 per cent of UK young cohort. Students have been allocated to the neighbourhoods on the basis of their postcode. Those students whose postcode falls within wards with the lowest participation (quintile 1) are denoted as being from a low participation neighbourhood. See HESA Definitions and benchmark factors: definitions


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