John Cope, Executive Director of Strategy, Policy and Public Affairs, UCAS

The title I’ve been given for my contribution to the Journey to a Million essay collection is probably the toughest, but also the most interesting: after the projected million-applicant peak at the end of the decade, how will we handle the steep decline in 18-year-olds from 2030?

Thinking about this question now is important if we are to avoid a ‘Grand Old Duke of York’ situation, in which we march up the hill to a million, only to have marched back down by 2040 without a plan.

My view is that the rise and fall of applicant numbers is not inevitable – even if the demographics are. I think this for one major reason: in 2030, the idea that only 18-year-olds going to university or college will drive overall numbers will be as passé as the (in)famous predictions of the future that include jetpacks and flying cars. That, or I’m setting myself up to write an embarrassing essay wheeled out in 2030 as a warning on predicting the future!

Let’s start with an understanding of what is driving the growth this decade:

  1. an increasing 18-year-old population;
  2. the growing popularity of education and training in general; and
  3. the UK’s appeal to international students as a world-class education destination.

When that first trend goes into reverse – as the census shows it will – will it be necessary to start planning for a plateau in applicant numbers post-2030, with UCAS left trying to entice a higher and higher percentage of a shrinking 18-year-old pool into education and apprenticeships?

Not necessarily. I think policy changes and economic reality will be more powerful factors than simple demographics. The four I predict will dominate are:

  • adult learners becoming the norm as the UK goes for growth;
  • new Skills Tax Credits sitting alongside the Apprenticeship Levy;
  • universities and colleges continuing to become nimbler in their provision, including through the Lifelong Loan Entitlement; and
  • online learning making education and training much more accessible.

Adult learners become the norm

Of course, this is not to say there aren’t lots of adults learning now: the Open University, Birkbeck, FE colleges, and training firms up and down the country already offer a huge amount of provision to adult learners – often those who are in the greatest need of a leg-up or second chance. However, it can hardly be called ‘the norm’. As analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows, we saw a peak of about 3.3 million adult learners in 2012, which had fallen to 1.5 million by 2020.i This decline happens at the very point skills shortages in the UK economy (and globally) are acute, and productivity has remained stubbornly low since the 2000s.

At the same time, employer investment in the workforce has waned. The Learning and Work Foundation found training spend per employee has fallen 28% in real terms since 2005, from £2,139 to £1,530 per year. This is less than half the European average.ii 

Two glimmers of hope are nestled in this rather glum analysis. Firstly, the Apprenticeship Levy and, secondly, the Lifelong Loan Entitlement (LLE). This is exciting because it should, for the first time, create a joined-up system where all people, not just 18-year-olds, have a path to training and learning – and not just as a big three-year degree block, but as smaller credits that can be taken alongside work and family commitments. The LLE also sets the foundations for joining up higher and further education, opening the possibility of addressing the Augar Review’s stark finding that, in 2017-18, over £8 billion was committed to support 1.2 million UK undergraduate students in England, compared to £2.3 billion to support 2.2 million adult further education students.iii  

The LLE has huge implications for the Journey to a Million. There are currently 30 million people in the UK labour market and, as UCAS delivers a new apprenticeships platform this year and plans to expand adult careers advice in subsequent years, together these innovations will open the door to millions of adults looking to retrain or upskill.

Apprenticeships, apprenticeships, apprenticeships

My view on apprenticeships is simple: they are an amazingly effective way for people get the skills they need.

The reason I said earlier that the Apprenticeship Levy (a 0.5% tax on employers with a payroll over £3 million) is a glimmer of hope, is that it has doubled government funding for apprenticeships since 2010.iv  Alongside the Levy, the quality of apprenticeship training has dramatically risen; employers are now involved in designing the content of apprenticeships, it stacks up against the real world; and there is a guarantee that at least 20% of an apprentice’s 30-hour week will be high quality training, not just work. That’s not to say the system is perfect, but it’s undeniable that the Institute for Apprenticeships has led a transformation in apprenticeships.

UCAS figures show this transformation has had a real impact on applications. 40% of people who come to us for careers advice and information are interested in apprenticeships – an increase of over quarter of a million since 2021. That’s a meteoric cultural change, and one I think will grow and grow – our current forecast is that at least 500,000 students will be interested in apprenticeships in 2030.

For that to happen, the number of apprenticeships on offer will need to grow dramatically. Currently, the Levy ringfences around £3 billion a year for apprenticeships, but this is nowhere near enough to meet demand.To put it in context, UCAS represents the largest repository of apprenticeship vacancies in the UK and, on results day last year, we had just five thousand apprenticeship opportunities live. Against the hundreds of thousands that were interested, current numbers are not going to cut the mustard.

The 0.5% Levy will therefore either need to increase, or we will have to drive up employer expenditure on apprenticeships another way. My personal preference would be for a Skills Tax Credit ‘super deduction’ as already exists for Research and It would see employers reducing their taxes for every pound they invest in high quality apprenticeships or T Level placements (in addition to the Levy). This could be extended to other vocational and technical qualifications where quality is high.

Growing the number of apprenticeships would also help address the problem identified in the Sutton Trust’s research that twice as many degree apprentices come from wealthy backgrounds.vii Ensuring apprenticeships continue to be a driver of social justice, rather than exclusive or rare opportunities, will be critical as demand continues to rise.

A generous Skills Tax Credit would drive up applicant numbers, regardless of demographics and give the millions in work the change to retrain or upskill. It would also ensure there are enough opportunities for the 50% of young people who don’t go on to higher education, bolstering the 2030 one million forecast dramatically.viii

Universities and colleges continue becoming nimbler in their provision and do not jump straight to degree level

This prediction for 2030 is linked to the LLE and other changes that are happening across the education and training policy landscape. The blanket approach of a campus-based block of three or four years learning at an institution is starting to feel dated, and most universities and colleges are moving away from this model by offering more flexible options alongside the traditional route.

This is where Level 4 and 5 qualifications, often referred to as the ‘missing middle’ of our system, could open new opportunities for young people and adults alike.ix Foundation degrees, NVQs, CertHE, and Diplomas have attempted to grow this underdeveloped part of the system in the past, each with mixed success. Scotland has had more success where Higher Nationals have become embedded.

More recently, the growth in Higher Technical Qualifications, the short courses pilots, and the LLE’s requirement for large qualifications to be broken into credits is driving the system in one direction: nimble, more flexible, and more bite-sized chunks of education or training. This is important because, by diversifying options alongside traditional campus degrees, with apprenticeships and shorter Higher Technical Qualifications (typically a year long, sometimes two), there is massive potential for universities and colleges to keep the growth in numbers going well beyond 2030 – regardless of demographic change.

Seizing the potential of online learning

The increase in remote learning stimulated by the pandemic provoked serious debate about the role and quality of online learning in the future. Some point to universities and colleges using online learning as a means of reducing the cost of running a course, but argue that it risks reducing quality and the student experience. On the flip side, many (including students) see significant benefits, especially through a hybrid approach of in-person and online learning. A common view from students is that big lectures are just as effective online, but seminars or lab time are a red line – here, face-to-face meetings with their instructor or lecturer come out top in student experience surveys.x

Technology, therefore, offers the potential to improve access for people from less well-off backgrounds, or those with family responsibilities, such as being a carer. It also creates the potential to innovate how education is delivered; a great example is the OpenScience Observatories from the OU where students can gain access to an astronomical telescope from their kitchen table.

Bringing these four factors together, I don’t think a peak in numbers followed by decline after 2030 is inevitable. As we ride the demographic wave over the coming years, we mustn’t forget that innovation, adult learners, and apprenticeships will expand the ways people can take advantage of education and training. The potential for millions more people, including those already in the workforce, to upskill and retrain is enormous.

UCAS is getting ahead by introducing our new apprenticeships platform (due to launch later this year), expanding our careers advice, embracing Higher Technical Qualifications, and investing in the flexibility required to support adults and the LLE. As a result, by 2030, I’m confident and excited that UCAS will be able to open the door to helping many more millions of people to education and training.

iInstitute for Fiscal Studies (June 2022), Adult education: the past, present and future.

iiLearning and Work Institute (May 2022), Raising the bar: Increasing employer investment in skills.

iiiIndependent Panel Report to the Review of Post-18 Education and Funding (May 2019).

ivDepartment for Education and The Rt Hon Anne Milton (April 2019), Key facts you should know about the apprenticeship levy.

vJohn Cope (August 2022), Lack of transparency is killing the Apprenticeship Levy and growth.

viJohn Cope (March 2023), Budget 2023: A competent affair that missed opportunities.

viiKatherine Doherty and Erica Holt-White (2021), Apprenticeship outreach: engaging with under-represented groups to improve social mobility

viiiDepartment for Education (2022), 16-18 destination measures.

ixSimon Field (2018), The Missing Middle: Higher Technical Education in England.

xJisc (September 2022), Student digital experience insights survey 2021/22.

John Cope

Executive Director of Strategy, Policy and Public Affairs, UCAS

John has worked in politics, communications, and policy development for over a decade across the whole range of education and training, from the early years through to adult skills. Alongside working at UCAS, he is a board member of a government agency, the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education, and is an elected local councillor. 

Originally from the Midlands, before joining UCAS John was deputy director of Public First, an education consultancy and polling company, worked with business leaders across the UK as head of education & skills policy at the CBI, and served as an adviser to three former education ministers. Outside of work, John is non-executive director of the Activate Learning group of colleges and schools, and is a governor of a special needs secondary school and sixth form.