The expected major increase in applications to study at university in the UK over the next few years, possibly reaching a landmark one million, is in many ways welcome and presents life changing opportunities for those who study for a degree. Of course, it also raises many questions, not least about how the changing nature of student demand is met, how such growth is financed and the availability of and demand for graduate level employment. But in many regions, such as in Greater Manchester, there is a major skills gap which means our graduates are in huge demand.
A university education is about more than just jobs — critically important though those ‘positive outcomes’ are. It’s also about social and cultural development. There is educational research which shows that university graduates have better mental health. Graduates are on average less likely to commit crime, are more likely to volunteer, more likely to be the leaders of the future, are in better physical shape, live longer, have higher levels of trust and tolerance and much more.
We are proud of our extraordinary students and want to welcome all who can benefit from a Manchester education in a socially responsible university. The growth in student applications presents opportunities, but also brings major challenges, particularly for many universities like ours.
The University of Manchester is by most measures very large, with 45,700 current students including 31,000 full time undergraduates. From the latest data, we have more student applications than any other university in the UK and very many more than we can possibly accept. This is in part due to the features of the university: the breadth of courses offered, our research strengths (students tell us they feel they benefit from being taught by experts in their chosen field), its diversity and the range of support and facilities available. It is also due to the attractiveness of the city region, so we work closely with the four other higher education institutions in Greater Manchester (the five vice-chancellors meet fortnightly) to discuss many topics including skills needs. This also helps us work together on direct support for students, for instance through our innovative Greater Manchester Student Mental Health Hub.i
We have not planned major expansion, given limitations of infrastructure and resource. However, our full-time undergraduate population has in fact grown by nearly 5,000 since 2019/20 due largely to the uplift in A-level grades as a result of teacher and centre assessed grades resulting in more students meeting the offer made to them which universities are then obliged to honour.
An important exception to this is in medicine, dentistry, and some other health degrees where numbers are capped by government. Universities were permitted to take some extra students on these courses, but also had to pay a significant amount of money to those who met the grades (which were offered before the switch to teacher assessments) but who we were not allowed to accept because we would exceed the cap. This feels unfair on the students and on the university. We hardly need to spell out how much our country needs more doctors, dentists, and nurses today.
Such unplanned growth causes significant challenges for staff, students, and resources. Where this has happened, we very quickly recruited more staff and adapted to the increased student numbers, but this limited our scope for further expansion in many areas.
So, what of the likely million applications predicted? Simply managing more applications presents a big increase in workload. We already require 3 A* grades at A-level for entry to an increasing number of our degrees, so we may have to consider entry exams among other measures; but all have resource implications — and can discourage some of the very students we most want to encourage to see Manchester as an option for them.
Another key issue is the financial implications of additional students. The current undergraduate fee of £9,250, introduced in 2012, is now worth about £6,500 in today’s money, and that value is falling fast with inflation. This means many universities are teaching UK undergraduate students at a loss. The fee covers not only teaching but many other student facilities such as support, mental health, IT, libraries, Students’ Unions. More students mean more calls on those facilities. Together with the fact that research is not fully funded by government (only about 70% of true costs on average across the Russell Group of universities), these factors make the financial model for universities unsustainable — though we are all working hard to mitigate this.
A more recent issue for Manchester, but a longer standing problem for some universities, is the availability of suitable student accommodation. The combined effects of student growth and little net change in private provision, in part as an unintended consequence of well-intentioned pressures on landlords, is creating a serious shortage. In our region this is exacerbated by successes in recruiting new businesses, graduate retention and many more young people attracted to the region. The universities are working with the local councils to try to resolve this challenge.
Capital funding for universities has been dramatically reduced, so many universities are struggling to even maintain, let alone expand lab facilities, equipment, study spaces, libraries and student support that is essential if we are to expand the number of university students.
But there are other challenges. The average student's Maintenance Loan falls short of covering their living costs by £439 every month and yet, despite soaring inflation, the maximum funding in England has only increased by 2.3% this year. Many students are struggling and many of the million planned may just decide they can’t afford to go to university or be forced to drop out because they can’t afford living costs. A university education should not be the preserve of those with financial means. We have committed £9m of direct payment to support students with the cost of living this year, but that won’t solve the problem; and it does mean there are other things we can’t afford to do.
Widening participation is very important for the University of Manchester and goes well beyond meeting targets imposed by the Office for Students. Social responsibility has been a key goal for us, alongside teaching and research, for the past decade. Alongside the extra demand is ensuring we attract students with real potential who have not had the opportunity to shine — but who do shine when they get a place at university. In that million, how do we attract and identify more diverse applicants and make it easier for less advantaged young people to attend, thrive at university and meet their aspirations?
Our alumni tell us their university experiences and education have been of immense value to them. They are certainly making enormous contributions to society. If that added value of universities was recognised through more sustainable funding, we could support more of The Million to future success.
President and Vice-Chancellor, University of Manchester
Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, FRS, is President and Vice-Chancellor of The University of Manchester, the first woman to lead The University of Manchester or either of its two predecessor institutions, and Professor of Physiology. She was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in June 2004 and made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in June 2005, in recognition of her services to science. She is Chair of the Russell Group, a Deputy Lieutenant for Greater Manchester, a Commissioner on the Law Family Commission on Civil Society, and a member of the UK Investment Council, the Oxford Road Corridor Board, the Northern Powerhouse Partnership Board, the UK Biobank Board, the Innovation Greater Manchester Board and the Times Education Commission. Her ongoing research in the field of neuroscience has contributed towards major advances in the understanding and treatment of brain damage in stroke and head injury.
Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students, University of Manchester
Professor April McMahon is Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students at the University of Manchester, and has previously held leadership roles at a number of other UK universities. Her main priorities are equality of access, awarding and progression for all students; partnership working with students; enhancement of teaching quality and student experiences; and recognition and reward for excellence in teaching.
April’s academic field is Linguistics. She is a Fellow of the British Academy, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Learned Society of Wales; an Honorary Fellow of Selwyn College Cambridge; and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She has been closely involved with the Teaching Excellence Framework since 2017, and is Deputy Chair (Academic) of the panel for TEF 2023.