Many different groups expressed concern at the time that the 2012 HE reforms in England, £9,000 fees, liberalising student numbers and loan repayment changes, would deter potential students, particularly those from poorer and non-traditional backgrounds.

The evidence so far suggests that after a dip in 2012 full-time first degree entrant numbers have recovered and application and entry rates are increasing, particularly among those from lower participation areas. However, there have been large falls in other entrants, especially those on other undergraduate courses and part-time students. There are also signs of increased segmentation in provision between different types of types of institutions.

The 2012 reforms did not just affect higher profile full-time undergraduates. The cuts in direct funding applied to all levels and modes. Part-time and postgraduate fees have increased, although as much as for full-time undergraduate courses. Fee loans were introduced for part-time students, but not for postgraduates. Basic trends for different courses and modes are set out in the table:Higher education entrants by course type
The largest fall was in part-time undergraduates and while this started beforehand, it accelerated in 2012 and was larger in England than in the rest of the UK. The funding council has highlighted a range of other factors linked to this trend including funding cuts to i) foundation degrees (2010), ii) equivalent and lower level qualifications (2008) and iii) employer co-sponsored courses (2011) and the impact of the recession on funding from employers and individuals. They have also linked the fall in part-time postgraduates to austerity measures across the public sector, especially education. Entrants to part-time postgraduate courses in education fell by 18,600 or almost 50% between 2010/11 and 2012/13.

Not all of these changes are purely demand led. The funding council has said that HE institutions appear to be “…exiting the market for study below degree level”. They also noted increases in such provision at FE colleges and a move to higher intensity part-time courses (where students are eligible for loans). In addition the 2011 HE White Paper encouraged the growth of private or alternative providers of HE. This sector has expanded rapidly; the value of (publicly supported) loans for students at alternative providers increased from £35 million to £216 million between 2010/11 and 2013/14. These providers largely concentrate on higher national diplomas and certificates –a sector that universities have been leaving.

It is not clear whether these shifts will settle down, intensify or be reversed. They do point to a wider HE sector with different types of provision at different types of institution. There is scope for further segmentation, particularly after the cap on student numbers is lifted, for instance between different types of universities.

While full-time first degree entry patterns have so far not supported the fears about access and widening participation, the large falls in part-time and sub-degree entrants, disproportionately from non-traditional backgrounds, remains a concern, as does the possible longer term impact of the 2012 reforms on postgraduates. This, coupled with the shifts in the size and pattern of HE provision, could present and ongoing and unexpected difficulty in improving access to all aspects of higher education.

In contrast to these largely unexpected impacts, the size of the fiscal savings from these reforms is now estimated to be much smaller than originally thought and, according to some commentators, may eventually amount to little or no saving at all.

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Paul Bolton