In June, we had a hint from then Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, announcing that ‘no-one is talking about limiting the overall number of people who go to higher education.’ However, ministerial changes since then mean that details remain unclear.
Both leadership campaigns have made pledges related to education and skills and, once in post, figuring out the next steps for higher education reform will be high on political agendas. By way of reminder, here’s an overview of UCAS’ evidence to date.
What’s happening with demand for HE and training?
UCAS projects the 2026 cycle could see one million applicants – around 27% more than in 2021, and double those seen in 2006. About 55% of this increase will be attributable to a growth in demand from UK 18-year-olds (driven by both an increase in application rates and an increase in the population) with the remaining 45% driven by continued growth in UK mature (c.10%) and international (c.35%) demand.
This is hugely significant as it sets the scene for the challenge afoot – how to promote student choice and balance the books, noting recent analysis from the Public Accounts Committee, highlighting the ‘long-term systemic challenges facing the sector.’
What are the risks in limiting access to full-time HE? (and what can be done about them?)
Minimum Entry Requirements (MERs) for access to student finance and student number controls (SNCs) in England would certainly achieve the aim of reducing direct public expenditure; however, their introduction would also change patterns of access.
Our analysis finds that the introduction of a Level 2 minimum eligibility requirement (MER) would have the greatest numerical impact on students eligible for student finance. Meanwhile, as UCAS and others have already commented, the introduction of a MER at both Levels 2 and 3 would most impact the progression of disadvantaged students and some ethnic minorities (especially Black students).
One option, modelled by UCAS within our response, suggests an additional exemption for free school meal (FSM) eligibility, which could mitigate against the risk of disproportionately impacting the most disadvantaged students. This scenario could see an additional 3,040 of the most disadvantaged individuals accessing student finance for HE.
Similarly, in designing any SNC policy, UCAS advocates a data-led approach which aligns with the widening access agenda. For example, given that impact is likely to be greatest for low and medium tariff providers, which typically recruit more local students, a SNC ought to take account of the geography of a university or college’s applicant pool to not have a detrimental effect on levelling-up.
Are there plenty of apprenticeship and technical education opportunities?
This upcoming so-called ‘journey to a million applicants’ will only exacerbate the challenge in maintaining the supply of high-quality post-secondary opportunities. This is not only relevant for full-time HE provision, but also for apprenticeships, with UCAS noting that apprenticeships will also need to expand to meet demand. UCAS notes that just 3,600 apprentices (aged 19 or younger) started a higher or degree level apprenticeship in 2020. And yet, of the 750,000 people who have set up their pre-application UCAS account ready for next year, 342,000 said they are interested in an apprenticeship.
So, whilst the intention is clear – to direct more individuals towards high-quality technical options such as higher technical qualifications and apprenticeships, as well as modular study, with challenges in the supply of apprenticeships, and demand only set to rise over the next five years, any policy that limits access to HE options ought to be addressed with caution.
What’s UCAS’ role?
One unintended consequence borne out of the introduction of a SNC or MER policy is that lesser supported students are less able to navigate the system and, as a result, lose out. UCAS already plays a central role as the most cited source for information for the 1.4 million individuals researching their post-secondary options. With 92% of students using ucas.com for guidance, we are investing millions in independent, engaging information, advice, and guidance.
We know, for example, there is evidence that a focused number of initial choices are beneficial – students are most likely to say that they are committed to two choices (31%) followed by three choices (25%). Given that less than a fifth (19%) of students are happy to go to all five choices, in a world where places are restricted through a SNC or alternative mechanism, making sure these decisions are taken with high-quality CIAG is critical.
It's also the case that the introduction of a MER would result in a group of students that are unable to progress to HE, and this may occur late in their journey – up to 20,000 students each year apply with a pending GCSE. In such circumstances, UCAS would work alongside partners to ensure that these students are not left behind.
Regardless of what the upcoming response will reveal, UCAS’ trajectory remains consistent – fulfilling our mission to make choices clearer, whatever these may be.