The Beginning of the End

The Beginning of the End

So, UCAS has just announced the opening of the 2020 Full-Time Undergraduate admissions cycle. Normally this news is important for HE advisers in schools, it’s not normally something I’d take time out to write about. 2020 is different.

Colleagues across the HE sector are all too aware of the 18 year old demographic down-turn the sector has been in the midst of it since 2009. It has been steep and constant. I’ve often likened this period to a bit of a desert crossing. Universities entered this harsh environment in very different states of health. Some with good reserves, appealing courses and strong trends in market share, others, were, well, in a more precarious position.

2020 marks a turning point. It is, the Beginning of the End. This new cycle is the final cycle where we see the last fall in the population, of around 2%. We’ve yet to see what will happen to application and entry rates for this group, but the signals are that all told it’ll lead to a pretty flat overall sector when the final results are in.

After this cycle we enter a period of unprecedented and sustained growth of 18 year old schools leavers, coupled with a strong trend in entry rates then we could start to see some bumper years of demand from this age group. This is something to be optimistic about.

At dataHE we’ve been clear to not fall into the trap of believing that this is the only dynamic at play. Cohort depletion of mature students is real, it is happening, and the effects are real. But that’s not the main thrust of my piece. Preparedness is.

These changes in demand are not without implication. Firstly, not every university in the country is going to benefit from this surge, or certainly not as much as some. Universities in Wales, Scotland and to some extent NI simply will not see change on this scale. Equally some regions of England barely recover from the losses since 2009. I know of universities who were aware, and hopeful for the 18 year old surge, but were blindsided by the scale of losses in older students. Meanwhile universities in London, the South East and East of England are set for some astounding growth in demand. We think universities should have a deep an intimate understanding of how they are set to experience this change.

Secondly, benefiting from this surge is not a right or entitlement. Students during and post surge, may well feel they have fewer, less generous, choices than their predecessor down-turn peers, but they will still have choice. Universities need to demonstrate an appeal to 18 year olds. They will need to prepare for and ensure that their proposition overall speaks well to this age group. Be it reputation, league tables, facilities, teaching experience, subjects of study, student body, inclusion, representation, location, they all have varying degrees of influence on where people choose to apply and who they choose to set as firm.

At dataHE we can see in the data universities who have almost taken themselves out of this 18 year old market. They have, through their market positioning put themselves into a weak place to be able to benefit from the coming surge. This needs some thought, strategic intent and plans to navigate the last few miles of the desert crossing.

Even though the pains of a tough recruitment environment are still very real for most, now is the time to turn some attention to the future. Get this last few miles wrong and a university may well find itself landing in a weak position just as the surge begins, get it right and another may well manage the decline of mature students effectively, whilst building a brand, portfolio of courses, and reputation with good appeal to this growing and increasingly important segment of the market.

The old adage of ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ has never quite felt so relevant.