Blog: new student enrolment data

10 February 2017

Russell Group Head of Policy Sarah Stevens blogs on the latest university enrolment data:

Yesterday's detailed HESA statistics are released covering student enrolments for 2015/16. So what are the most note-worthy trends? And what might this tell us about the future performance of UK HE – and research-intensive universities such as those in the Russell Group specifically?

Overseas student numbers continue to grow at Russell Group universities

In 2015/16 there were almost 179,000 non-UK domiciled students at Russell Group universities. In the same year 37% of new entrants to Russell Group universities were from other EU and non-EU countries, and it was 23% UK-wide.

Overseas students contribute to a diverse student body and a thriving society, culture and economy – not just on campus but for the UK more widely. And demand from international students is vital to the continued sustainability of many degree courses. That’s particularly true for postgraduate taught courses and in subjects of strategic importance to the UK economy, such as engineering and computer science.

Growth in non-EU new entrants has stalled for UK HEIs overall (falling by 1.2% in 2015/16), although Russell Group universities have managed to buck the trend, with enrolments up 5% (and up by nearly a quarter over five years).

The quality of the student experience, of learning in a research-rich environment with excellent teachers, and having the facilities, resources and other opportunities that a research-intensive university can provide is key to that success.

However, the market for international student recruitment is extremely competitive and other countries are already taking advantage of the uncertain position in the UK to grow their overseas student numbers. Education exports in Australia surpassed AUS$20 billion for the first time in 2015/16 and total international enrolments are on track for another year of strong growth (up 12% provisionally in 2016).

Enrolments from other EU countries grew in 2015/16 both across all UK HEIs and for the Russell Group (by 2.2% for all UK HEIs and by 4% for RG universities). Of course, these students took the decision to come to the UK before the referendum vote so we may expect this to impact on enrolments in future. UCAS application data shows a 7% dip in demand from other EU students for 2017 (-4% for high tariff providers). So, on the face of it, not as bad as some had predicted, but this still needs to be seen in the context of steadily climbing applications over the last five years (peaking at 42,310 in 2016).

Government’s reassurances for EU students starting courses in 2016/17 and 2017/18 regarding fee rates and loan access have been helpful in mitigating what could have been far more damaging declines in applications. As the recruitment cycle starts all over again, early assurances for 2018/19 applicants will be critical.  

Looking further ahead, if universities are to play a key role in ensuring the prosperity and economic security of post-Brexit Britain they must continue to be able to attract the very best students – as well as academics and researchers - from around the world. Keeping bureaucratic visa burdens to a minimum and promoting the UK as open for business will be crucial to this.  

Progress is being made on widening participation to highly selective institutions

The Prime Minister has made clear that a commitment to social mobility should underpin everything the Government is doing. Universities have a key role to play in widening participation to their institutions and supporting students from under-represented backgrounds to succeed.

One of the fundamental barriers to progression for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as from certain ethnic minorities, is poor attainment at school.

Research from the Sutton Trust this week shows thatbright students from less well-off backgrounds lag behind classmates from wealthier backgrounds by around two years and eight months in maths, science and reading. And the UCAS end of cycle data for 2016 shows that just 17% of black students applied to university with grades equivalent to AAB or better compared to 29% of Asian students, 33% of mixed ethnicity students and 31% of white students.

Despite these difficulties, real progress is being made with year-on-year double-digit growth in the numbers of all BME students at Russell Group universities in 2015/16. In particular, Bangladeshi new entrants grew by 28%, Pakistani new entrants by 16%, and African new entrants by 10%. Collectively, Russell Group universities have also outperformed the sector as a whole in increasing the percentage of students from state school backgrounds. Whilst these statistics are encouraging, we know there is more that needs to be done which is why our universities continue to invest significantly in long-term sustained outreach activities as well as providing financial and other support for disadvantaged students. 

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