Shifts and Trends in UK Higher Education

A new publication from HEFCE, ‘Higher education in England 2014: Analysis of latest shifts and trends’, is an overview of recent shifts and longer-term trends, building a picture of publicly-funded higher education in England in 2014 and a sense of how it got to where it is. It also considers possible further changes and continuities in the year ahead.

Available to download are the main report and key facts sheet, together with the data-set used.

This blog post will not consider the sections in the report on research and knowledge exchange, nor on financial health of institutions, but will focus on student enrolments, subjects and growth and decline of parts of the market. I will also ask why we are not following the trends.

Full Time Student Numbers

The information presented shows a recovery in full time undergraduate numbers in the sector with an 8% increase in 2013-14 compared with 2012-13, however there are significant drops in the numbers of part time entrants and also entrants to undergraduate programmes other than first degrees, with a 38% decline in students on foundation degrees.


Interestingly, there has been growth in students  registered on full time HE qualifications delivered in FE colleges.

Part Time Student Numbers

Unsurprisingly, the number of entrants to part time undergraduate awards has fallen significantly, with the biggest decline in awards other than first degrees.


Entry to Postgraduate provision

There has been little significant change in UK/EU entrants to postgraduate provision, as seen in the  graph below, but as the report highlights, in 2015, we will have the first potential entry to these awards by students who have gone through their undergraduate programmes under the current fee regime. Since a high percentage of current postgraduate students have no financial support and are funding their own studies, it will be interesting to see how the next generation will view the benefits of postgraduate study. They could be averse to taking on even more debt, or alternatively may be happy to do so, having made an assessment of the benefit of further study balanced against the increased level of indebtedness, much of which may never be paid back.


When considering entry to postgraduate provision, this university needs to be very aware of international recruitment – recent visa changes have potentially had a negative effect on how HE in the UK is perceived. To quote the report:

International students have contributed a great deal to the growth of postgraduate education. They make up over a quarter of all postgraduate numbers, but in certain subject areas they are more than half of the cohort, which makes parts of the sector vulnerable to volatility in this market.

A quick look at the growth and decline of international markets is instructive:


Recent news around visas has potentially had a major effect on recruitment from India and Pakistan, whereas demand from China is booming.

Student Characteristics

The report shows that entry rate has increased for all students, and that for those who are the most disadvantaged, there has been a greater increase. However, there is still a large gap in participation between students from the most advantaged and most disadvantaged neighborhoods, and that students from the most advantaged areas were more likely to enter high-tariff institutions.

Interestingly, the number of facilitating subjects studied at A-Level  (where the Russell Group de?nes ‘facilitating subjects’ as subjects that are required more often than others for entry to undergraduate courses. They note that mathematics and further mathematics, English literature, physics,biology, chemistry, geography, history, and classical and modern languages can all be seen as facilitating subjects.) have an effect on likelihood of acceptance to university, and this is exaggerated fro those with lower A-level grades – study of facilitating subjects seems to be of more significance:


So the message here seems to be – choose “traditional” A-level subjects, particularly if you are a “weaker” student.


HEFCE clearly supports STEM subjects and others of strategic importance such as modern foreign languages. This report makes comments on both of these, and for us the section on STEM is important.

94. In 2013-14, positive trends in STEM applications translated to 98,000 acceptances via UCAS, the highest level recorded. Engineering and technology acceptances bounced back by 6 per cent (2,000) after a decline, returning to 2010-11 peak levels. Acceptances to computer sciences in 2013-14 were higher than at any point since 2003-04, having increased by 12 per cent (2,000) compared with the previous year.

95. UCAS applications data for the 2014 cycle suggest continued growth in engineering and technology subjects, with applications rising by 11 per cent compared with the previous cycle. Computer sciences have seen the biggest increase in applications, of 13 per cent.

96. Increased entries to STEM subjects at A-level suggest that there is scope for further growth in higher education in the coming years. Although total numbers of A-level entries remained ?at between 2011-12 and 2012-13, the numbers of entries to STEM subjects increased by 6,000 (2 per cent)

As we look to reviewing our portfolio, for me this is a strong message that we need to ensure we are ready to grow in our areas of strength such as computer sciences, and recognise the potential in other science and engineering subjects.

Recruitment by location and tariff

Again, interestingly, this report shows that the West Midlands one of the areas of highest growth (3%) for full time undergraduate entrants to HE, but at the same time saw a significant drop (48%) in part time entrants.

The HEIs which saw significant growth in entrants  tended to be specialist institutions or those whose students have high average tariff scores. Declines of more than 10 per cent took place at 28 HEIs and 17 further education colleges. The majority of the HEIs seeing these levels of decline were those where entrants had low or medium average tariff scores.


There is a lesson for us here maybe, as raised in the VC’s Blog this week – do we need to do more work to raise our entry tariff, to compete against the HEIs we think of as our natural competitors, and to have a potential benefit to our league table position?


A detailed and comprehensive picture of higher education in England, which provide some useful points for reflection. My key points (and these are entirely personal, not the views of the institution) would be:

  • international recruitment – which markets are we operating in?
  • portfolio review  – emphasis on STEM provision?
  • entry tariff – can we raise this?












The University Steve Jobs would have built?

I’m shamelessly ripping off the title, from a piece on by Carmine Gallo, author of “The Apple Experience, secrets to building insanely great customer loyalty”.

apple exp



Gallo writes in his short article about work he did with Walnut Hill Medical Centre in Dallas, and this was what grabbed my attention:

“Enhancing the patient experience has now become an increasingly important goal for virtually all the hospitals in the country. They are all waking up to the fact that the quality of their customer experience will impact their bottom line,” according to Dr. Rich Guerra at Walnut Hill.

Replace patient with student, and hospital with university, then this applies to us too. This is not to say that universities also have to worry about other relationships, such as with research collaborators, funding councils, central and local government and other stakeholders, but for a teaching led institution like ours, then we know that student experience (and importantly success) is critical to us.

Gallo has three parts to his book: inspiring your internal customer; serving your external customer and setting the stage. There’s something in all of these that could be of value to a university embarking on significant change and campus developments.

In the article, Gallo refers to 7 principles from the “Steve Jobs playbook”:

  • Look outside your industry for inspiration.
  • Start with the right vision.
  • Hire people with an aptitude for service.
  • Greet customers with a warm welcome.
  • Train every employee to deliver steps of service every time.
  • Design spaces to make people feel better.
  • Leverage mobile technology.

Would it really be that difficult to apply this to a university setting? After all hospitals and universities have many similarities – we transform lives; we employ a lot of clever people; we employ large numbers of service and back office staff to make the place work; we want our clients (I’m not going to write customers) to succeed and have a good experience.

Look outside your industry for inspiration

So often universities look to each other to decide what to do next, hence a set of research , learning and teaching and student experience strategies that are interchangeable between institutions. Could we identify better examples of managing student experience in the tourism industry or healthcare sector?

Start with the right vision

This must be a no-brainer, but having a simple vision that everyone can sign up to is the starting point of getting your staff, your internal customer, onto the right page. Our VC’s blog last week, talking about importance of league tables, is an example of this.

Hire people with an aptitude for service

We know we need to employ staff with these skills in our services, but do we consider it enough when recruiting academic staff? As well as wanting to recruit great academics, we need to make sure that they are able to deliver the right educational experience to students.

Greet customers with a warm welcome

Yes, I know this is right out of the Apple Store manual, but again, why wouldn’t we do this? I have to say that at Open Days and at moving in weekend, we are actually really good at this.

Train every employee to deliver steps of service every time

Again, a bit retail orientated, but if we are recruiting to offer good service to create a good student experience, are we doing enough to make sure everyone knows what it is they need to do?

Design spaces to make people feel better.

Ok,  for us it won;t be “feel better”, but it will be “learn better”. As we enter a period of deciding what our campus should look like mean there is an opportunity for a discussion on building the kind of spaces that support learning.And my view is that this does not mean more lecture theatres. The open space in Brindley seems to have a lot of learning going on whenever I am in there, and we need to learn, again from other industries, what might be the best way of shaping and using our space.

Leverage Mobile Technology

I’ve written before, in my blog post about digifest14, on how the future of digital is going to be huge, and that it’s about more than having an iPad.Linking to the point above about spaces through, we need to consider how we will use technology, and importantly be able to react and use new technologies, to support learning. This isn’t about minor changes such as having BlackBoard Mobile, this is about all of us being able to use technology to deliver education in a different way

So, some initial thoughts, based on one article and a quick skim through Gallo’s book. There is a danger of being sucked into the Apple fanboy view of the world, worshipping at the altar of Jobs, but there are soem good ideas in this that I will return to in my next installment of “We can be better than this”.




Information for Prospective Students

The current narrative about higher education is that we need to provide more information, to students, prospective students, government and other stakeholders. A central plank of 2011 White Paper was that comparable data would be made readily available:

Each university will now make the most requested items available on its website, on an easily comparable basis. These items, together with information about course charges, are called the Key Information Set (KIS) and will be available on a course by course basis, by September 2012,although many of the items of information are already being made available prior to their incorporation in the KIS.

And so we embarked on the work of editing and checking the data to go into KIS, and duly inserted course widgets on website pages. Cue howls of despair, as people started to realise this opened up a few problems. How did some universities honestly say they were teaching that many hours per week? How come the student survey data was not at award level but potentially misleadingly at JACS3? And the same for employability data? Why did the average contact hours drop if you included a placement year?

Anyway, a new report commissioned by HEFCE and reported in this week’s Times Higher, seems to show making lots of information available is not necessarily working. The key findings of the report show:

The decision-making process is complex, personal and nuanced, involving different types of information, messengers and influences over a long time. This challenges the common assumption that people primarily make objective choices following a systematic analysis of all the information available to them at one time.

Greater amounts of information do not necessarily mean that people will be better informed or be able to make better decisions.

(from HEFCE)

From the Times Higher article:

Beth Steiner, a senior higher education policy adviser at Hefce, told a workshop last month that the findings had “raised several questions in our minds about Unistats and how fit for purpose it might be”.

She said that one solution could be a system that allows students to select “different levels of detail” about courses. A Hefce spokesman said the council was not anticipating any changes to Unistats before 2017.

Ms Steiner said that Hefce had assumed that “if you give them [prospective students] lots and lots of information, they will take that information and they will systematically work through it and they will make a reasoned analysis and decision based on that analysis”.

“We fully own up to that assumption, which we have made in the past – but it’s clearly not realistic,”

But is this really that much of a surprise?

Do people always act as rational consumers when making purchase decisions? There is a lot more at play in the decision-making process for potential students: family connection to a university, locality, sports facilities, type of campus. This list could go on, but importantly contains factors that are not readily reduced to simple numbers. This is summarised in the summary of the report as:

Preferences are often partially-formed and endogenous to social and economic context, and people are rarely fully informed utility maximisers

As I posted on Twitter:

twitter re student choices

This is not to dismiss this work out of hand, there are some important principles in the final summary that anyone involved in providing student information will find interesting. The challenge will be to understand how we can interpret and apply this, at the same time as the  market principles that currently underpin higher education dominate the narrative with some not fully formed ideas about how markets and consumers really operate.