3rd February 2017

Latest UCAS data signals the post-Brexit challenges for higher education

The Education Policy Institute’s Gerard Dominguez-Reig looks at the new UCAS admissions data – and assesses what it means for the higher education sector.

This year’s data on university application rates was long-awaited by researchers and the higher education sector. Recent changes in the policy and political landscape, namely the UK’s plans to withdraw from the EU and the introduction of new funding arrangements for medicine-related studies, makes this cycle’s data particularly interesting.

As expected, applications from EU students have decreased. In this first UCAS release of data relating to study in 2017/18 following the UK’s vote to leave the EU, applications from EU students were down by 7 per cent, compared to a 5 per cent decrease in British applicants. In England, despite a 5 per cent decrease in applications, the level of applications relative to the 18-year-old population has gone up, with a declining population for this age group. However, there are also differences between the home nations, ranging from a fall of 2 per cent in Scotland to one of 7 per cent in Wales, where some may be waiting for a new, more favourable funding formula to be put in place as a result of the Diamond Review of Higher Education[1]. The Diamond Review recommends a minimum universal maintenance grant of £1,000 for all full-time students, complemented with a more generous means-tested grant of up to £8,000, while replacing the tuition grant with student loans. The review also calls for more generous maintenance funding for part-time students.

These figures are likely to be met with unease by universities, most of whom are now facing reductions of up to £9,000 per year in fee income for lost students. Applications from international, non-EU students have experienced only a negligible increase.

The overall decrease in university applicants has been particularly sharp among British people aged 25 or older (-18 per cent). Financial support for students who wish (or need) to combine work with part-time study is limited and employers are increasingly unlikely to pay for university-based training, particularly when the alternative is to offer apprenticeships which are heavily subsidised and increasingly promoted by the government. The decreases for other groups range from -11 per cent among 20-24 year-olds to virtually no change for 18-year-olds.

Trends also vary widely by ethnic group. Black ethnic group applicants have seen the largest fall, at 10 per cent in only one year (double the national average). Some of this is driven by the disproportionate number of applicants from this ethnic group who are older (41 per cent of  applicants from this group are aged 20 or over, compared to 23 per cent nationally), signalling that the impact on part-time learners is having a particular effect on access to higher education for these prospective students. White applicants have the second largest decrease (6 per cent), while the fall was just 2 per cent among Asian or mixed-ethnicity applicants.

The expected fall in applications to nursing degrees has materialised, after the government has shifted from a system where fees and bursaries were paid by the NHS, to one based on fees paid for through student loans and no bursary provision. Applications to nursing degrees are down by a striking 20 per cent. This varies widely among nations, with the largest decrease taking place among English applicants (as funding changes apply to them only), followed at a distance by Welsh (-11 per cent), Northern Irish (-7 per cent) and Scottish applicants (-4 per cent). This means that there are around 10,000 fewer UK applicants to nursing degrees, which contrasts with the 1,000 training places the government is going to offer for the new nursing degree apprenticeship that will start in September[2]. Based on that, it is highly uncertain whether the decline in applications to nursing degrees will be compensated with new apprenticeship places.

This is illustrated in Children and Young People’s Mental Health: Time to Deliver, a report by the Education Policy Institute’s mental health commission[3], which highlights that changes in the funding system could risk further problems in recruiting children’s mental health nurses. A survey conducted for the purpose of the report found that eight in ten children’s mental health providers struggled to recruit staff, especially nurses.

As the UK transitions to a post-Brexit scenario, these latest data highlight the challenges ahead for higher education institutions, and the supply of staff to public service provision. It is imperative that the renewed focus on vocational and technical education signalled in the recent Building our Industrial Strategy green paper produces tangible results. That will need to involve, as set out in our report,   Remaking Tertiary Education, a credible and attractive alternative to currently-popular forms of higher education.[4]

See also: 

Coverage: ‘Students turn backs on nursing degrees in wake of Government decision to axe NHS bursaries, official figures suggest‘ – The Telegraph

[1] http://gov.wales/docs/dcells/publications/160927-he-review-final-report-en.pdf

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-nursing-degree-apprenticeship

[3] http://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/time-to-deliver-web.pdf

[4] http://epi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/remaking-tertiary-education-web.pdf