UCAS March 2017 Deadline Application figures - what will they show?

The March deadline UK undergraduate application figures via UCAS come out tomorrow, and with that in mind, it is a timely point to muse on the corporatisation of our charitable public universities, and their thirst for growth at all costs.

However, this amazing growth is supposed to coincide with a stark slowing-down of student numbers, the main income revenue streams for HE institutions. I can only access January data back to 2012 on the UCAS website, but the figures show that applicants domiciled in England are at the lowest since 2012, the year the £9000 tuition fee cap was introduced, and they are almost exactly the same as that year (~385,000). Going back even further, England-domiciled applicants were only lower than this year in January back in 2009... And that was before nursing became a degree-only profession for registration. There are probably other examples of accounting sleight-of-hands to increase degree and applicant numbers, as this marked the end of Labour's tenure in government, with a policy of getting 50% of all school leavers into higher education.

So, from a domiciled perspective it is clearly a bit of a disaster for growth potential (although brilliant for competition! It should be becoming a buyers market for students, but I'm not sure that all students see it like that yet...). For English providers, though, with the unrivaled prestige that comes with being the birthplace of the english language internationally, perhaps it isn't so dire when you take into account international students? For all UK-domiciled applicants, applications to England-providers was at ~414,000 in January 2017, which was only lower in 2012, at ~412,000! I can't go back further, but I would imagine that 2009 would be the first year to show significantly lower applicant numbers to English HE institutions absed on the information for English-domiciled applicants. When international students are taken into account the picture is rosier, but not much: applicant numbers are at 502,000, last lower in 2013 when numbers were 499,000. I don't have the figure for 2011 (it was around 482,000 for 2012), but there is a realistic possibility it could have been higher than 2013.

What does this mean in practical terms? Well, universities have obviously relaxed entrance requirements in this era of "free-market" competition in the HE sector, and so actual student numbers have not declined at all. Looking at end of cycle applicants to England, last year (2016) the total number of applications (NOT applicants!) in England had very very nearly recovered to the pre-£9000 tuition fee cap number in 2011, reaching ~2,417,000 applications in the 2015-1 6 cycle, versus ~2,418,000 applications in 2010-11. However, the acceptances were only ~415,000 in 2011, whereas they reached ~450,000 in 2015, but have plateaued their last year at almost exactly the same number.

Overall, I await tomorrow result for the trend in March applicants with interest, but it won't be until the summer/Autumn when the proof of "negative growth" or contraction will really be presented. This does not promise to be pleasant, and although we would like the senior management to bear the brunt of any fall in the sector given their lack of ability to prepare for sustainability, and their unwillingness to share any of the responsibility by consultation, those at the bottom will always be worse affected.

One final point of interest is that the summary from the outgoing UCAS chief executive last year was certainly not overly-positive. The main reason I believe that the gloomy picture which tuition fees present for English HE institutions is not trumpeted about is that commentators tend to take the larger picture, and are not so worried for every institution. They also like to be pessimistic about things that don't matter economically - i.e. inequality of access, the focus for the outgoing UCAS CEO, is important, but it is definitely not going to hit the UK economy. However, declining student numbers is, and pessimistic news along that line is always a no-go zone until the effects are really felt. Individual commentators do bravely make individual comments, but they appear to be smothered by the collective cognitive bias of pretending that nothing is going wrong because we don't want to believe that anything is going wrong, and because there is a commercial reason to maintain "market confidence" in the English HE "brand".

Pinpointing the beginning of the decline is hard, particularly in an industry with such long-term trends like HE, but a bit like the concept of peak oil, I wonder whether we might have just started to reach the peak of undergraduate admissions into England... This is only going to hit university revenues (the way Scottish universities were hit in 2012 when English students stopped coming in their droves), and the funding crisis at Russell Group Universities which caused the introduction of higher tuition fees back in 2010 will finally hit after what has only been a postponement of the inevitable.