UK universities are in expansion mode but their focus is on European students

Many British universities are in expansion mode as they loosen admission requirements to cater for more European students. But how will this affect enrolments from Asia

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 September, 2015, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 September, 2015, 8:00pm

Many universities in England have lowered the A-level grade required for entry and are offering bursaries and other inducements to fill their places as the British government lifts the cap on student numbers for the first time from this academic year.

The changes, which took universities by surprise when announced by the government in December 2013, will increase universities' income from tuition fees. For both local and overseas students, it means greater opportunities to trade up to more prestigious universities, since institutions vie against each other for the best students.

After years of stiff competition to gain admission to top universities, it is now "a buyer's market for students", says Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

A record 409,000 students have accepted university places to start the coming academic year, according to study figures.

Among the highly regarded universities expanding the number of undergraduate places in the next few years are the universities of Essex, Newcastle, Sheffield, Southampton and York. A number of prestigious London-based universities such as King's College, London School of Economics and University College London have ambitious new building plans in the pipeline which will increase the number of students in coming years.

A survey by the The Guardian found that almost half of universities in England plan to expand their undergraduate student enrolment over the next five years.

"We are spending millions on buildings for our students and staff," says Jules Pretty, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, which plans to increase student numbers from 10,000 students now to 15,000 by the end of the decade. Since its founding in the 1960s "it's the most important thing that's happened in the history of Essex University", he says.

However, some of the most prestigious, such as Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, Warwick, and Manchester have no plans to increase numbers.

The numbers cap previously applied only to local and European Union students and its lifting could mean a shift in focus away from recruiting non-European students - including those from Hong Kong and the mainland - to those from the EU.

The number of EU students accepted by universities in England grew by 8 per cent in 2014 when there was a partial lifting of the cap for students with AAB grades or better in A-levels in 2013, and no restriction on recruitment on those with ABB grades or better last year.

The intake from EU countries shot up again this year, with a 14 per cent increase in acceptances in August year on year.

This contrasts with a 6 per cent fall in the number of Hong Kong students applying to British universities this year to 6,210, compared with 6,570 last year.

"This was expected due to the falling number of graduates in the coming year," a British Council spokeswoman in Hong Kong says.

Nonetheless, she adds: "Even if British universities are recruiting more from the EU, it will not affect recruitment in Asia. Britain remains the leading English-speaking study-abroad destination for Hong Kong students."

However, students from Asia, including Hong Kong, may find that the balance at Britain universities has shifted towards the rest of Europe. Unlike other international students, EU students do not have to go through onerous immigration checks and accompanying record-keeping by universities. They also have access to the government student loan system.

It is now a buyer's market for students
Nick Hillman, director, Higher Education Policy Institute

While many universities plan to boost enrolments from Europe, the University of Nottingham is among those saying it is not switching its focus from Asia. "We are taking in more British students but also taking in more from Asia and elsewhere internationally," says John Quirk, director of the University of Nottingham's International Office.

Nottingham provides £6 million (HK$71 million) in scholarships to international students, he adds.

So far there seems little suggestion that the lifting of student number controls will make any difference to the number of non-European Union students, says Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs.

"Most universities will still wish to recruit as many well qualified students as possible, for their higher fees, for their abilities and as part of their international strategies," Scott adds.

There has been concern among the top tier so-called Russell Group of universities of a drop in student quality and a reduction in standards.

"We are in unknown territory, a free-for-all with the complete removal of student number controls," says Hillman. Studies on a similar policy in Australia five years ago found a reduction in entry criteria and a worrying increase in dropout rates.

"It clearly will have an impact on standards," says Hillman. "There is a reputational risk to universities if they change their entry criteria significantly."

But he notes that under the old system in England many universities were also turning down well-qualified students that they would have liked to admit simply because of the number controls. "Only time will tell, but so far there is no evidence that good Russell group universities are lowering their standards," Hillman says.

But there is a major constraint. Increasing enrolments could be hampered by the lack of affordable student accommodation particularly for first-year and overseas students. Being forced into the expensive private rental sector could increase the cost of a degree and could become de facto the new numbers cap for many universities, particularly those in expensive areas such as London.

"Availability and quality of student accommodation is very important to the overall quality of the student experience," says Hillman.