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Over 350,000 more university places needed in England by 2035

New Hepi report explores effects of demographic change and participation rates on future demand for higher education

Universities in England have been advised to plan for a dramatic rise in demand for university places by 2035.

A new report from The Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) report reveals over 350,000 more higher education places will be needed in England by 2035.

However, demand for university places is predicted to remain level in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where rising demand is balanced out by decreases in the young population.

The report, ‘Demand for Higher Education to 2035’ by Rachel Hewitt, examines future demand for higher education places in the UK over the next 15 years in the light of changing demographics and participation rates.

Higher education places in England

The data shows that due to rises in the 18-year old population alone there would be an increase in demand of 40,000 full-time higher education places in England by 2035.

In addition, if participation in higher education also increases in the next 15 years at the same rate as the average of the last ten years, this figure increases to a demand of 358,000 places.

The biggest growth in demand, according to the report, will be seen in London and the South East, with projections suggesting that over 40% of demand for places will be in London and the South East.

Higher education places in Scotland

The statistics suggested that in Scotland, however, the increase in participation will be balanced out by a decrease in the number of 18 year-olds in the population.

Based on demography alone, there would be a decrease in demand of 18,000 full-time higher education places in Scotland by 2035. But, if participation increases in the next 15 years at the same rate as the average of the last five years, then that gap will close, with a decrease in demand projected to shrink to close to nil. This suggests Scotland will be able to accommodate a growth of participation in higher education without increasing student numbers.

The situation in Northern Ireland is expected to be closer to that in Scotland than in England and equivalent data is not available for Wales.

If government is committed to levelling up across the country, perhaps the focus should be on the disparity of participation rates across England, rather than debating national targets – Rachel Hewitt, Hepi

However, the report warns cash-strapped higher education providers against premature celebration of these projections, pointing out that they are dependent on government policy, and the absence of student number caps.

“There have been declining numbers of 18-year olds in the population in recent years, which has impacted the way universities have operated,” said the report’s author, Rachel Hewitt, Hepi’s director of policy and advocacy.

“However, 2020 is the last year of this trend and universities are set to see a significant rise in student numbers over the next 15 years. Among focusing on their recovery from the current pandemic, universities will need to consider how they can scale up to incorporate this level of demand. Government will also need to consider how to best prepare for this increased level of demand.

“There are those who would like to see a cap on the number of students entering higher education. However, these projections show clearly that if trends in participation continue as in recent years, capping student numbers in England would deprive a growing group of students who will be looking to enter higher education, which would likely be detrimental to the push for greater equality of access to higher education.

“Our projections suggest the greatest growth is likely to be seen in London and the South East, partly due to their existing higher levels of participation. If government is committed to levelling up across the country, perhaps the focus should be on the disparity of participation rates across England, rather than debating national targets.

“For policymakers in Scotland, these projections suggest an easier path to tread. While participation continues to grow, this is limited by the cap on Scottish students and a decline in the 18-year old population means Scottish universities should be able to take on more students without having to expand the number of places available, limiting the cost to the Scottish Government.”


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