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It focusses on the first few years after the 2012 reform of higher education in England. For up to date analysis of student numbers see the new paper: Higher education student numbers

New students starting higher education in England in 2012 faced higher tuition fees, potentially higher loan interest rates and longer loan durations. But compared to the pre-2012 system access spending on students from disadvantaged backgrounds has increased; fee loans have been extended to part-time students; after graduation monthly repayments for all will borrowers will be smaller; and some graduates earning the smallest amounts could repay less over the course of their working life. At the same time as these funding reforms the Government also brought in a new ‘core and margin’ model which introduces an element of competition into the allocation of student numbers between institutions.

The impact of these changes on potential students and student numbers is seen as a key test of the success of the Government’s reforms to higher education in England. The number of new UK/ EU full-time undergraduates fell by more than 50,000 or 11% in 2012. This was larger than the earlier falls seen when fees were first introduced and then raised.

Full-time undergraduate numbers recovered in 2013, but the increase in UK/EU students of almost 39,000 still meant that the total was almost 15,000 below the 2011 peak. The number of UK/EU part-time undergraduates fell by 77,000 or 29% in 2012/13. The number of full time undergraduate applicants is up again in 2014. However, there have been dramatic falls in the number of part-time entrants, particularly undergraduates. These started before 2012 and there are thought to be multiple factors behind them including the 2012 reforms, earlier policy changes, the recession and actions taken by providers. There is also increasing attention on the postgraduate sector as a whole where full-time entrants have remained steady, but the 2012 reforms could potentially affect entrants in the future.

Any long term change to student numbers would have important implications for the financial health of the higher education sector and the UK economy.

In the Autumn Statement 2013 the Chancellor announced that the cap on student numbers in England would be increased by 30,000 in 2014/15 and removed in 2015/16. This will effectively scrap the ‘core and margin’ model of student number control introduced alongside the 2012 funding reforms. It is estimated that this could mean an additional 60,000 students starting each year. The cost of this is to be met, in the short term at least, by sales of pre-2012 income-contingent loans. It is estimated that gross proceeds from these sales over the five years from 2015-16 will be in the range of £10-15 billion, with a central estimate of £12 billion.

This note looks at how student numbers have figured in the 2012 higher education reforms and summarises the emerging evidence on new student numbers from 2012 onwards.

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