No return to normal for universities this year – Experts

Higher education chiefs in the United Kingdom were putting on a brave face as freshers prepared to start their first academic year at British universities, but this year has been far from a return to normality after two years of upheaval caused largely by the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit.

Much of the media focus has been on the 40,000 students without a university place almost a month after A-level results day who were “free to be placed in Clearing”, as Clare Marchant, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), described it in a blog for the WonkHE think tank on 22 September 2022.

Marchant focused on the just over half a million students placed in higher education – the highest figure for a non-COVID year.

“While this represents a slight decline in the entry rate compared to 2021, it is 3.5 percentage points higher than 2019, the last time exams were sat,” she said.

Upheaval in the marketplace

But the total hides an upheaval in the marketplace caused largely by last year’s disruption when school-leaving exams, such as A-levels, were replaced by teacher assessed grades during the pandemic, Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director at Education Insight, told University World News.

This led to higher than expected grades being awarded to final-year school pupils and high-tariff UK universities, such as the so-called elite Russell Group of universities, being forced to accept more students who met the grades they were asking for last year.

Top-ranked British universities “had to accept more students than normal and some even offered incentives to applicants to defer entry for a year”, said Ilieva.

The BBC reported that the University of Leeds was offering £10,000 (US$11,200) in cash and free accommodation last year to students to defer the start of their courses in subjects such as law and business to 2022, while the University of Exeter made a similar offer to medical students.

“This meant that in addition to this year’s intake, some universities have had to accommodate last year’s deferrals as well and may partly explain some of the reductions [to this year’s intake] at those higher education institutions,” Ilieva told University World News.

Teaching home students at a loss

But the real reason that the number of 18-year-olds from England, Wales and Northern Ireland admitted to high-ranking institutions fell by around 12% this year, or 12,000 students, two weeks after results day, is more likely to be the claim that the highest ranking universities are spending £1,750 more on each home undergraduate per year than they make in tuition fees and grant funding, with some predicting that the deficit will increase to £4,000 by 2024-25 when the next general election is due in the UK.

Ilieva pointed out that UK home student tuition fees have been frozen since 2012 and that their value in real terms has fallen significantly to the point where they now equate to £6,540 in 2012 money, the year when fees of £9,000 per year were introduced.

If it had kept track with the Retail Price Index, the home tuition fee should now be around £12,700, according to Mark Corver, co-founder of dataHE and a former director of analysis and research at UCAS.

In practical terms this means universities have 27% less in real resources to teach each student in the incoming cohort than they did a decade ago.

So, despite demand for entry to high-tariff universities being 5% higher this year, the 2022 intakes “have been slashed by 12%”, according to Corver.

But it is not all bad news as middle- and lower-tariff universities, which make up the majority of higher education institutions in the UK, have benefitted after years of slim pickings among students with higher school-leaving grades.

UCAS figures showed that low-tariff universities increased their intake of home 18-year-olds by 8,060, or 10.3% this year, while medium-tariff universities recruited an additional 6.2%.

International students

David Pilsbury, chief development officer at Oxford International Education Group and a former deputy vice-chancellor (international) for Coventry University in the UK, told University World News: “The UCAS data only tells half the story at best, and is not that helpful when it comes to international students, many of whom come via different routes to the UK to study.”

He said: “Marchant’s blog for WonkHE tells us 12% of accepted undergraduates using the UCAS route are from outside the UK and this is nearly 9,000 fewer accepted international students compared with 2019, the nearest comparative year before COVID distorted international recruitment and exams were replaced with teacher assessments for A-levels.

“The trouble with such a comparison is that it ignores the impact of Brexit and the changing fee status of EU students who are now supposed to be paying full international tuition fees. In 2019 they were paying the same as home students and had access to UK student loans.”

Pilsbury said an analysis by his colleague Vincenzo Raimo at Oxford International shows that EU students in the UK using the UCAS route are down by 18,000 since 2019 and non-EU international student numbers coming to study at UK universities, via UCAS, are up by 8,500.

“Brexit and the change of status for EU students has had a massive impact and it will be interesting to see if international undergraduate student growth will be focused in the Russell Group institutions at the expense of other higher education institutions now they have decided to cut back on home student intakes.”

Andrew Hargreaves, co-founder of dataHE, echoed this point and told University World News: “When comparing international student recruitment from UCAS data it is prudent to check non-EU and EU numbers and the year being compared to.

“In 2019 EU students had the same fee status as home students. In 2020 EU numbers fell dramatically. Aggregating them together for the 2022 cycle can lead to confusion.”

Pilsbury said the important lesson for UK universities from all the churn in the marketplace remains that “those universities that have been strategic and sophisticated in overseas markets have done well – and those who haven’t – well they haven’t!”

Ilieva said she would not go as far as saying that some universities were making up shortfalls in home tuition fees by reserving places for international students, but with international students paying an average of £13,000 a year more than their domestic peers, “higher education institutions need to make up for the shortfalls in the funding required to teach home students, and the only source of such funding is international students”.

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.