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HEi-think: Latest UCAS data shows student market competition is hotting up

Mike Ratcliffe, Oxford-based university administrator and Director of More Means Better, examines the latest UCAS data, and finds competition for mobile students is on the rise.

 

The end-of-cycle data from UCAS are a very useful set of information, despite being focused on only full-time undergraduates in the main UCAS cycle, and the fact that a large proportion of Scottish students do not enter higher education via UCAS.

The statistical release caught the attention of the media las week as it contains both demographic data for the whole sector and some institutional data. The most prominent story was that Oxford admitted more 18 year old females (1,070) than males (1,025), although across all ages a fraction more males (1,660) were accepted than females (1,635).  I’m not saying that it’s not important how Oxford allocates its places, but the ten year run of data shows that its 3,295 acceptances through UCAS is only 40 higher than in 2008.  Oxford is not growing (neither is Cambridge -  its 3,480 acceptances are 45 fewer than in 2008).

Aside from Oxbridge, and surely more interesting, are both the short-term and long-term changes in student numbers. Universities whose acceptances have risen by more than 10 per cent in 2017 over 2016 include some pretty hefty number changes in the course of one year.

 

University

2016 Acceptances

2017 Acceptances

Increase

University of Leeds

7390

8250

860

Liverpool John Moores University

6265

7135

870

University of Reading

4050

4650

600

University of the West of Scotland

4135

4625

490

Glasgow Caledonian University

3540

3915

375

Brunel University London

3115

3675

560

Staffordshire University

3220

3570

350

University of Stirling

1835

2490

655

York St John University

2010

2290

280

Birkbeck, University of London

1305

1510

205

Arts University Bournemouth

1180

1320

140

Abertay University

1030

1285

255

As there hasn’t been that much growth in the sector, there are places with fewer acceptances this year than last, including Middlesex with over 1,000 fewer, London Metropolitan 700 down and changes in Scotland with Aberdeen down nearly 900 and Napier with 450 fewer.  Remember, UCAS does not handle all students, so these falls may not represent such large falls in the overall student population.  

This is, of course, is the market that ministers wanted. The difficulty is that it’s not hard to make the assumption that this market is working for the mobile student. Students who are well-prepared for study and who are able to relocate are highly attractive and there are incentives on offer for them through the admissions process.

Previous data releases have shown that the average entry tariff fell for both growing and shrinking universities - suggesting that the mid-tariff institutions were taking the better prepared students from the low-tariff universities. This data release from UCAS does not include tariff or widening participation (WP) data, but does have a split between students with A level or other qualifications.  It does look as if the number of A level students falls faster in shrinking universities than those with other qualifications (but the ‘other’ category doesn’t necessarily equate with less mobile or WP students).  What we have seen previously is that the number of WP students at growing universities has remained static so that their proportion of the total population has declined. 

When the student number cap was first relaxed, there were incentives for universities to attract AAB+ students.  It is clear that universities are still incentivised to attract the best prepared students they can: there are intrinsic rewards, but they are also reflected in league tables and positioning towards TEF and future accountability measures that might be run by the Office for Students.  Many universities have kept ‘excellence scholarships’ in place to recruit and retain the best prepared students.

The advantage of 10 years of data is that you can see longer trends away from the blips of individual years, particularly notable around 2012.  As an example, if you took at the three years before the fee rise (2008, 2009 and 2010) and compare that with the last three years (2015, 2016, and 2017) some universities have significantly changed their numbers.  Kingston averaged 7,500 acceptances a year before fees, now it averages just over 5,000.  Large drops can be seen at UEL, Plymouth and Southampton Solent.  Some universities, such as Bedfordshire and London Metropolitan are also ‘re-sizing’, but their peak in terms of acceptances came in 2011. Whereas Kings College London, UCL, Bristol, Exeter, Sussex and Liverpool are all now accepting over 1,500 more students a year on average than they were before the change.

This isn’t necessary just the whole story: the university with the biggest change in the number of acceptances is Coventry with its multiple campuses.  The limits of the UCAS data means that it cannot tell us the whole story of alternative providers, but BIMM, who only came into the system in 2013, had over 2,500 acceptances in 2017 (more than Aberdeen, Bangor or Bradford). 

In England, the OfS has a duty to promote choice for students and encourage competition between providers.  Looking at these UCAS data, it looks like it’s got a head start from the 2012 reforms…

 

 

dirkercken / 123RF
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