What will an increase in demand mean for smaller and specialist higher education institutions?

Anthony McClaran, Vice-Chancellor St Mary’s University Twickenham and Chair of GuildHE

Higher education is delivered in a hugely diverse range of providers. This diversity is one of the strengths of the UK system and recognised as a vital component of the sector in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. There are large ones, small ones, specialist ones, rural/coastal ones and online ones, and GuildHE represents a great many smaller and/or specialist universities, university colleges and other HE institutions, each with a distinctive mission and priorities. As the demand for higher education continues to increase it is important to consider the different ways in which this demand may be met by these providers.

The sector has always been highly innovative and responsive to student and employer demand, and the range of qualifications offered in universities are testimony to that. The most recent policy intervention has focused on professional, vocational, and technical education, but this is something that all universities have been doing for centuries, whether through training doctors, teachers, nurses, lawyers, clerics and architects. Whilst we expand the diversity of qualifications, it is important to ensure that the huge benefits of higher education — whether economic, social or cultural —are available to all students whatever courses they are studying and that there doesn’t arise any artificial divide in the types and backgrounds of students that study particular courses. 

A decade of change

GuildHE members' distinctiveness in the sector is most obviously demonstrated in the size of our institutions, which are significantly smaller than the average university. Many of our members are also specialists in one or two related disciplines. This creates a unique dynamic and culture which offers students a very different, and strongly supportive, experience from studying in a large multi-faculty provider. 

There is therefore a balance to be struck between growing to meet demand and protecting this distinctive student experience. Data from UCAS shows that over the last 10 years our members have been growing, some at a considerable rate. For example, according to UCAS data, two of our small non-specialists have grown by over 35% since 2011 yet the rest of the sector's small non-specialist HEI’s have had more modest growth. Some of our specialist members have been able to grow more substantially (over double since 2011). However, they started from a much lower starting point — of around 100 - 200 acceptances per year. Although the number of acceptances to all conservatoires has also nearly doubled during this time, the actual number of acceptances for all conservatoires is still relatively small (from 1,325 in 2011 to 2,630 in 2021). 

To what extent can you grow and still preserve distinctive student experience and is there a size point where a specialist stops being a specialist?

These are questions many of our providers are facing right now and there is a mixed picture of who wants to grow and how best to meet demand without compromising on quality and whilst maintaining a distinctive offer. Offering a very personal, supportive and inclusive learning environment for students is important to our members and having a disciplinary focus creates a sense of belonging and purpose for both staff and students.

There are several ways of growing an institution — whether expanding existing provision, diversifying the curriculum offer or increasing its partnership or transnational offer. Several of our specialist members that have seen the biggest growth have chosen to expand by creating new campuses across the UK and EU. This way they protect their small and specialist identity but can increase student numbers. This approach is however more expensive and riskier than simply expanding a single campus.

There are other financial barriers to growth too. Many of our institutions have high costs in teaching equipment and studio spaces which make growth a much less appealing proposition, especially at a time when the tuition fee (and any high-cost supplementary funding) just covers the cost to deliver without any real financial cushion to invest in growth and development. It is said you must spend money to make money but the freeze in tuition fees is having a profound impact on the level of investment providers can make to meet this new growth.

There are also potential demand barriers. Whilst the employment sector and post-18 education choices have profoundly changed and are more complex, the lack of investment in careers information, advice and guidance (IAG) for young people (and the population at large) is stifling growth in ‘opportunity’ occupations. It is unclear the extent to which the public are aware of the onward potential (and need for) gaining a degree in agriculture, osteopathy, and other niche specialisms. There are also pipeline barriers brought on by the changes to the national curriculum and school inspections. Whilst 30% of the jobs on the shortage occupation list are in the creative industriesii, the impact of Progress 8, the EBacc and state funding squeeze has dramatically reduced the creative curriculum in schools. There has been a 38% decline in students taking creative GCSEs and a 31% decline in creative A Level take up compared to 10 years ago.iii  It makes it harder for state school pupils to access creative qualifications and therefore shuts them out of a crucial creative industry and many other careers. Creativity is one of the most in-demand skills by employers according to the World Economic Forum, the Confederation of British Industry, LinkedIn, and many others. The lack of creative education will not only restrict growth in L4+ arts qualifications but could harm social mobility more generally.

Recruitment strategies and admissions

This pipeline and IAG problem impacts on how institutions will need to approach recruitment and admissions in future. It is not a ‘done deal’ that the growth in student numbers will lead to the growth in subjects which are most beneficial to the growth of the economy or in students' long-term best interests.

Many GuildHE members also interview and audition or ask for a portfolio of work as part of the application process. In the context of this holistic approach to selection, we are proud to accept students with non-traditional qualifications, or a mixture of A Levels, and BTECs. But we feel that as well as prior attainment it is important to assess whether the person has a talent or potential in their chosen career path and therefore offer careers advice and guidance as part of the admissions process. This is costly and time consuming, but important to ensure that students understand the demands of their chosen profession. Admissions should not be a computer algorithm, but an informed set of decisions made by both the student and the HE provider.

We are also concerned how automation may affect student decision-making in the future. Most people are now comfortable with search engines and access to unlimited information, but there is a danger therefore that algorithms can lose the nuances and specialisms that this sector has to offer and makes it harder for us to reach the right applicants and new markets. Combatting the algorithm with additional marketing further increases costs for specialist HEIs. We must therefore ensure that information, advice and guidance particularly for more specialist courses and industries is strengthened.

In conclusion, growing student numbers does not necessarily mean more investment in the sector to meet that demand, and smaller providers have less means to expand their provision. To maintain a variety of providers and provision we can’t all just continue to grow, otherwise we will lose the uniqueness of the experience we offer. We must therefore think about ways we can offer more places, whilst maintaining our values and our distinctive student experience. We all want to ensure that we maintain a genuine choice for students. This means we must improve IAG and careers advice, offer new ways of learning, and ensure smaller and specialist providers have the means to thrive in the new HE landscape.

iUCAS (2021), UCAS Conservatoires End of Cycle 2021 Data Resources.

iiUK Government (February 2022), Skilled Worker visa: shortage occupations.

iiiUKADIA (2021), Trends in Creative Arts Qualifications and Department for Education (November 2022), Official GCSE and A level Statistics.

Anthony McClaran

Vice-Chancellor St Mary’s University Twickenham and Chair of GuildHE

Anthony McClaran is the Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and Chair of GuildHE, a representative body for UK HE representing over 50 universities and colleges and other specialist institutions. He has also been appointed to the Governing Council of AVEPRO, the Holy See's Agency for the Evaluation and Promotion of the Quality of Ecclesiastical Universities and Faculties. Before returning to the UK to take up the post of Vice-Chancellor, Anthony served as CEO of TEQSA, Australia’s national HE regulator from 2015-20. Previous roles include Chief Executive of QAA 2009-15, and of UCAS 2003-09, and leadership and administrative roles at the universities of Warwick and Hull. Anthony also has extensive governance experience in schools, colleges and universities, including Chair of Governors at All Saints Academy, Cheltenham, and Chair of Council and Pro-Chancellor at the University of Gloucestershire.