Are we ready for the million?

Jilly Court, Chief Operating Officer, Goldsmiths, University of London, explores the growth forecast for HEIs and how this may impact budgets.

UCAS has recently projected that by 2030 the UK Higher Education system could see up to a million students applying to study at level 4 and above. This represents a significant growth in demand over the next 7 years of up to 30%.

UCAS has initiated a national debate on this matter with insights from a range of contributors across the HE spectrum and government. Whilst I make no claims to being a ‘thought leader’, this struck me as something to be concerned about and triggered my thought: are we ready for this?

Every university in the UK will be forecasting for growth I am sure, but how many will be thinking in the realms of up to 30% more? Of course this increase could be even higher for higher-ranking institutions or selective and destination providers. 

So, before we get too excited and start adding zeros to our budgets, 7 years is not long in the business cycles of universities as we know. So how are we going to address this demand, and ensure we are ready for this challenge and to meet student expectations?

Initially, I suggest we need to be looking at our product portfolios, i.e. the range of academic subjects offered – what are the growth areas, where will the demand be, what are the next ‘new’ subjects coming down the track, how can these be developed, increased or revised? Getting a new programme up and running can take a minimum of 2 years in my experience, so this review and crystal ball gazing needs to start now.

Teaching pedagogy is always evolving with Hy-flex becoming the current new hot topic; Hy-Flex enables a student-centered and flexible approach, allowing students to choose their mode of attendance and learning path according to their needs or preferences, and has the virtue of widening access creating further equal opportunities.  However, whilst an added bonus of Hy-Flex is that it can increase capacity by optimizing both staff and resources, it does need considerable investment in the physical and digital estates and in particular investment in staff development and training to ensure teaching staff are prepared for the change.

Focusing on the provision of physical and digital estate to meet the increased demand, have we the physical space and capital to build or invest in what will be required? Even with significant improvements in technology there is still an expectation from students of belonging or joining a community and coming together in person and this expectation must be met – we cannot scale up the student numbers and not provide all of the enhanced student experience which, as many surveys inform us, is zeroing in on belonging and community. The challenge with hybrid teaching (as we know from lock down) is how to achieve this.

Finally, whilst the growth in demand will be welcomed and all Universities will be focusing on growing and maintaining their market share, the elephant in the room is of course, the range of options increasingly available for UK 18-year-olds. With the government’s agenda of offering a range of options to young people, the market is becoming increasingly competitive and crowded. Universities will find themselves not only increasingly competing against each other but also the many other options and providers all working hard to entice young people to join them. Hence focusing on the USP and competitive advantage and market appeal becomes even more important. 

So, are you ready for the million? Or like me, do you have a million things to do to get there!