DESPITE the introduction of top-up fees, applications to higher education are still increasing, as shown in figures produced by UCAS — the body that handles the recruitment process for higher education.
The increase in the number of 18-year-olds is party responsible. But the rise may also reflect the importance in the job market of having a degree: many employers who formerly considered those with A levels now want to recruit graduates.
Within this overall rise in the number of students, there is good news and bad news for the universities that have emerged from former church colleges.
For many, the increase in teacher-training places in the primary sector (to meet the unexpected rise in the school population over the next few years) is undoubtedly good news. This must be tempered, however, by the fact that most new places will be on shorter, one-year graduate courses — more expensive for providers to operate, as they lack the economies of scale of undergraduate courses.
Some of the new universities also face cutbacks in secondary teacher-training places over the next few years. The current projection for places on secondary courses in England in 2011 shows some institutions losing more than ten per cent of their teacher-training provision.
Another anxiety for universities is the possible knock-on effect of the reduction in choice on the UCAS form, from six to five institutions, for first-degree students. In reality, the figures show that students are applying on average to four institutions rather than five under the old system.
As a consequence, applications to the University of Chester are about
20 per cent down; the University of Gloucestershire 18 per cent. Universities where applications have declined less than the average include Canterbury Christ Church, Winchester, and Bishop Grosseteste, in Lincoln.
Where their importance in the market place is significant, as in the provision of undergraduate primary teacher-training courses, the drop may just mean fewer application forms to deal with and more chance of filling courses before clearing.
In other subjects, however, where the former church colleges are in direct competition with larger institutions, the opposite may be true: fewer forms will come through the door before clearing, and some courses will have to be filled at that stage.
A further challenge is to meet the need for more recruits from ethnic minorities, especially in professions such as teaching. New universities located away from areas with significant numbers of multi-ethnic groups face a particular challenge.
Recruitment figures suggest that institutions — like St Mary’s, Twickenham, and Newman, Birmingham — which have retained a more overtly religious public face, have experienced a smaller decline than those whose name change has made their church heritage less clear: the Universities of Chichester, Chester, or Winchester, for example.
Although religious affiliation may be falling among the population as a whole, there still seems to be a market for church-school students who want to continue to attend a church-run establishment throughout their higher education. A reputation for high-quality teaching, though, is always going to be the most important factor.
Professor John Howson is a Visiting Professor at Brookes University and a Visiting Research Fellow at Oxford University.