UK higher education applicants to rise to 1mn a year by 2030, warns UCAS

The number of people applying for higher education will jump by up to 30 per cent to 1mn people each year by 2030, according to university application service UCAS, which calls for a targeted effort to increase places for students.

Last year, 767,000 people applied to higher education in the UK. UCAS projections show this number could increase by up to 30 per cent by the end of the decade.

The rise means that universities will need to expand the number of places they offer while maintaining educational standards. But with real-terms funding for higher education falling, sector leaders warned that the supply of quality places may not keep up with demand.

“It’s vital that these students have access to a supply of high-quality opportunities . . . and that the interests of disadvantaged [students] are not forgotten during this period of increasing competition,” said Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS. “This is an economic challenge as much as an educational one.”

Nearly three-quarters of applicants to higher education took up a place at university or other post-18 courses last year, UCAS said. Future success rates will depend on how providers and governments act to increase supply.

New places could be on undergraduate degrees but also “further education or an apprenticeship”, said Robert Halfon, minister for higher education.

The increase expected by UCAS is driven by a mini-boom in birth rates that is expected to result in a jump in the number of 18-year-olds over the coming decade. Some 457,000 18-year-olds could apply for higher education in 2030, a 38 per cent increase on current numbers.

However, with tuition fees for UK students frozen at just over £9,000 since 2012, the value of funding for these learners has been eroded by inflation. Universities warned that they lose money on some UK students and are not incentivised to create new places.

“We’ve had frozen fees for a while now, which means in some cases income is not covering the cost of teaching courses,” said Rachel Hewitt, the chief executive of MillionPlus, a membership organisation for universities founded after 1992.

Providers may reduce course offerings or increase student-teacher ratios to balance the books, she added. “Some universities are going to respond to that by saying we can’t actually increase student numbers.”

One way of boosting funding is through international students, who pay more than their domestic counterparts. UCAS predicted a 60 per cent increase in international applicants by 2030, from around 150,000 to 240,000 annually.

However, this growth is not guaranteed. The government this year indicated that it could tighten restrictions on international students which could limit demand.

Last year, the number of UK higher education applicants dropped slightly, but UCAS said this was a “slight recalibration” after higher-than-usual grades inflated numbers during the pandemic.

Sector experts agreed that numbers would probably continue to increase. “Demand is not going to fall . . . because aspiration levels run high in UK families, employers want highly skilled people and schools are better than they used to be,” Nick Hillman, the director of think-tank the Higher Education Policy Institute, said.

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