Now that the dust has settled on the undergraduate admissions process for 2012, it is worth reflecting where we are as a sector, and where NU sits in the pecking order.
First, some numbers. Figures from UCAS on 11th September showed that the number of students accepting places at English institutions reduced by 7.4% compared with the same point last year. In actual student numbers this represents a reduction of 30,076. It is estimated that this will cost the sector more than £700M in lost funding over three years. Why the shortfall? It’s difficult to say for sure but several factors are likely to be involved. First, a lower-than-expected number of students attained AAB grades, which is likely due in large part to the much publicised ‘tightening-up’ of grades. Second, it would appear that high fees have deterred students from accepting places. Third, a higher number of students deferred entry until next year in tandem with a lower number that deferred last year.
The impact on individual institutions has been hard to predict. One Russell Group university has indicated that it was 600 short of predictions. Moreover, I am hearing anecdotally that significant numbers of students are failing to register having accepted places, so the real position could be worse. Perhaps, when the potential financial commitment becomes a reality, these candidates have had second thoughts. Given that all universities depend to a greater of lesser part on undergraduate fee income, any reduction in student numbers compared with target has the potential to throw financial plans into turmoil. I suspect I don’t need to remind everyone that the increase in undergraduate fees is concomitant with a reduction in direct financial support from the government.
So what of NU? As noted on these pages a few weeks ago, we managed to recruit very much according to plan. There have been a few decreases here and there, but other units have exceeded target, so the overall picture is where we expected to be, or thereabouts. This is excellent news indeed – but we must not be complacent. We know that the off-quota cohort will be ABB next year (with a further reduction in sub-ABB quota), and we also know know that it will remain there for the following year – a further reduction to BBB has been ruled out. The good news is therefore that there will potentially be some stability in the system. The bad news is that recruiting to target is unlikely to become easier. It seems we managed to buck the trend with respect to many of our peers, and they will be working even harder to improve their market share – at our expense. As I’ve said before, we operate very much in a Darwinian environment, and the organisation that adapts most quickly and most effectively to this rapidly changing environment will come out on top. I hope that organisation can be NU. We are, after all, working from an excellent base.
To succeed, it is plainly obvious that we need to put students at the heart of the system (to use the government’s words). This means we need to give our fullest attention to visit days, the student experience and NSS. We must engage with this and mean it. I suggest however that this may not be enough to guarantee our place at the top table. As a colleague at an institution where I worked one said, the three things that will protect us from these changes are quality, quality and quality. Hence the need to focus relentlessly on our Vision 2021 aspirations.