University Admissions Turbulence

This morning I’ve been compiling various bits of statistical information for our Annual Programme Review and Evaluation. Yes, it really is as exciting as it sounds. In the course of this I remembered a news item in last week’s Times Higher concerning the latest University admissions figures from UCAS.

The story compares overall admissions figures (i.e. the total number of students entering each university) for 2011 and 2012, pointing out that there are huge changes in some institutions with winners and losers even within the Russell Group. The University of Bristol, for example, increased its intake by a whopping 28% whereas Sheffield was down by 13%.

Similar comments can be found here, in the Grauniad.

For your information you can find complete lists for 2011 and 2012 on the UCAS website.

What I usually do when statistics like this are released is look at the places I have worked in my own career, so here we are:












Queen Mary








My current employer, Cardiff University, was well up in 2012 compared with 2011, whereas Queen Mary was significantly down. Nottingham was slightly down and Sussex slightly up, but both these variations are really within the level of √N noise.

Of course these are overall (institutional) figures, and I suspect they hide considerable variations at subject level. For example, although Physics has seen something of a resurgence in popularity lately, it’s difficult for Physics departments to over-recruit given constraints on laboratory space.

I’ve heard these changes described as “Darwinian”, but I’m not sure I agree. The big factor allowing Bristol to do so well has been the ability of institutions to recruit unlimited numbers of students with at least AAB at A-level. This completely changed the dynamics of the UCAS clearing system so it’s not at all surprising that it generated short-term chaotic variations. This year it is different again, with ABB now set to be unrestricted; similar turbulence is inevitable.

It’s difficult enough for universities to navigate safely through such unpredictable waters, and persistent tinkering with the controls is not helping in the slightest. Will the chaos decay naturally, or will it be constantly regenerated by badly thought-out interventions from those in charge?

6 Responses to “University Admissions Turbulence”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I can understand some of the processes driving changes in student numbers, but it is still surprising that there are such large differences between institutions.

    The capping by the higher education funding councils of the numbers of funded places imposes a limit on increases in student numbers. There are exceptions to this, such as the scheme in England to fund additional places for candidates with high A-level scores that Peter referred to in the context of the University of Bristol. Presumably the increase in student numbers at Cardiff University is the result of funding some places above the cap for strategic reasons by the Welsh Education minister and HEFCW?

    The new fees regime in England is deterring some people from attending university, and this is affecting young people from some backgrounds more than others. That will be a major factor behind the decline in student numbers in some universities, particularly in some of the new universities.

    The central concern behind all this is that some universities have experienced significant falls in their income that will threaten their financial viability. None of the universities named by Peter will be in this category, but a few of the new universities may be in difficulty. There could be some dramatic, unpleasant, developments in the British university system over the next few years. I have been watching London Metropolitan University for some time.

    • telescoper Says:

      Cardiff overall admissions did well in the end in 2012 largely because of clearing; earlier on in the year it seemed the picture might be different.
      London Metropolitan suffered a huge (30%) fall this year, no doubt exacerbated by bad publicity relating to UKBA action against it.

      I suspect several newer universities will not survive if the pattern established this year continues.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I assumed the Cardiff numbers were up because of a selective raising of the cap on numbers, but might under-recruitment in the previous year have been a factor?

      The UK Borders Agency withdrawal of London Metropolitan’s right to admit non-EU students was a severe blow, but it follows the earlier financial difficulties caused by having to pay back HEFCE money the university over-claimed. The bad publicity further deters applications for places.

      • telescoper Says:

        Numbers are still capped in Wales, so the AAB palaver can’t be the factor in Cardiff. I think the extra numbers were probably non-AAB students coming through clearing that English universities couldn’t take. That theory can easily be tested by looking at the actual A-level points of students entering. I should say that the entry into Physics in Cardiff is only about 110 per year so it constitutes a tiny fraction of the figure shown in the table…

      • What was the reason for the withdrawal?

      • telescoper Says:

        Alleged failure to ensure that overseas students were actually engaging in the course of study for which they had a visa.

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