This year's report covers the ten-year period following academic year 2006–07, one which has seen significant funding changes to higher education across the UK, and the economic and social aftermath of the economic downturn in 2008. The report looks at a variety of areas covering students and staff at, and finances of, UK higher education institutions and demonstrates a number of key themes.
Changes in the HE student body, including how and what is studied
The total number of students in 2015–16, at around 2.3 million, is broadly the same as in 2006–07 but underlying changes have seen a shift in the student body and what is studied. There has been growth in younger and female students and those from a disadvantaged background, or non-UK domicile. Full time, first degree and postgraduate taught courses now also account for a larger proportion of provision compared to 2006–07. The data clearly shows that in a period which has seen significant changes in student funding, and a challenging economic environment, part-time study has continued to decline.
However, despite a decreasing young population demand for full-time higher education has remained high, with the number of young students from disadvantaged backgrounds reaching record levels in 2015–16. Student satisfaction has also increased from 79.9% in 2006 to a new high of 86% in summer 2015, and graduate outcomes have also remained strong. Both young and older graduates show consistently lower unemployment rates and higher earnings than non-graduates over the period, despite a difficult economic environment and challenging labour market.
Increasing international nature of HE in the UK
A further theme over the period has been the increasingly international nature of higher education for UK higher education institutions. From an increasing proportion of international students studying at UK universities, from 14% in 2006–07 to 19% in 2015–16, to the important contribution of international staff – particularly for the delivery of teaching and research in subjects such as engineering, biological studies and physical sciences. International sources of funding have also become more important to universities, with non-EU fees accounting for 23% of all teaching income and international funding accounting for 16% of all research funding in 2015–16.
These trends are also important for the wider UK economy, with international students contributing an estimated £10.8 to UK export earnings and around 206,600 jobs.
Emerging trends and potential impact on UK HE
For the first time, this year's report also looks at emerging demographic, technological, economic and political trends that may shape higher education in the UK in coming years.
These include trends that may impact on domestic and international recruitment, such as a projected upturn in the UK's young population from 2021, growth in young populations in key international student markets, improving global GDP per capita and falls in the value of the pound. Continuing technological change also presents opportunities for enhancing teaching and learning. Universities will need to consider how best to use technology to achieve the best possible student outcomes and the highest quality student experience.
There are also a number of significant challenges, including uncertainty surrounding the UK's decision to leave the EU and potential for any restrictions to recruiting talented European staff and students, or international research collaboration and loss of funding for research and innovation.
Despite ongoing political and policy uncertainty, the higher education sector has a central role to play in contributing to inclusive economic growth locally, regionally and nationally, and ensuring that the UK remains successful, dynamic and internationally competitive.
For more details download the full report.