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Uncapping student numbers – what it means this year

10 August 2015
Eleanor Jubb

Eleanor Jubb

Policy Analyst
Universities UK
Empty chairs
A-level results come out this Thursday and we’re expecting record numbers of applications and students gaining places. Results day is always significant for the higher education sector, but this year even more so. The total removal of student number controls announced in 2013’s Autumn Statement comes into effect next month, and as a result more institutions than ever will be able to recruit as many full-time undergraduate students as they wish.

The ending of the controls means universities can continue to widen the opportunities for students. The government recognises the importance of widening participation in higher education and want double the proportion of disadvantaged young people to enter university by 2020 than did in 2009. Around the world there is continuing demand for increasing numbers of graduates to equip workforces for an ever more competitive and global high-skill economy which re-confirms the importance of a university education.

We expect an increase in the number of students accepted onto undergraduate degrees in England this year. Whilst the number of mature applicants has fallen this year, both the absolute number and the proportion of British 18 year olds applying are the highest they’ve ever been. And we’ve also seen increases in the number of EU applicants to English universities after a considerable decline following the 2012 tuition fee reforms. EU applicants are now just above the levels seen in the last year before that reform, and we hope that we’ll see similar numbers beginning undergraduate degrees in September.

Universities have responded differently to the removal of controls and not all will choose to expand. Some institutions will have already expanded as a result of the earlier relaxation of controls and won’t wish to increase their student intake further.  Some universities will have decided that they can’t currently expand until the necessary staff and facilities are in place. Some may have been cautious about expanding given the uncertainty of government funding for additional numbers. And understandably so. Recently​ HEFCE announced there would be no funding for supporting increased student numbers in 2015-16, with universities needing to fund additional activities based only on the tuition fees they receive.

It’s worth noting as well that the removal of controls isn’t total: restrictions remain in place for students directly funded by the government, those studying for an initial teacher training qualification or for certain medical degrees. In 2013–14, the latest year for which data is available, there were nearly 36,000 undergraduates on medicine and dentistry courses in English universities, and nearly 70,000 on education courses, though not all of those on education courses will be training to become teachers. Controls also remain in place for the majority of alternative providers, apart from those with degree awarding powers.

The ongoing limits placed on these students will mean that some institutions who wish to expand will still be affected by controls. And some universities who want to expand will be affected by the size of 18 year old population: even with a small blip this year, the population of 18 year olds is still 4% lower than its most recent peak in 2009 and is expected to keep falling till 2020.

Whatever the numbers involved, the removal of the cap on student numbers makes it a particularly exciting time for those of us who like to watch admissions trends.

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