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UCAS figures suggest increased cost is a less strong limit on participation than capping

August 18, 2015

The latest UCAS daily clearing bulletin reveals a pattern of particularly large growth in England this year from students from Northern Ireland, Scotland and the EU, even though these students face much larger costs studying in England than in their home jurisdictions (see footnote).  While English students in England are 3% higher than at this point last year, Scots are 10% higher, Northern Irish students 11% higher and EU students 14% up.

In other words, lifting the cap in England seems to be having more of an impact on students from outside England than within it,  even at the expense of those students bearing greater costs.

The likeliest explanation for this is that in all three cases, domestic provision remains more tightly capped than in England.  The Scottish system is growing but since 2009 has not kept pace with rising demand (as acceptance rate figures from UCAS show: figure 11 here).  The same is true of Northern Ireland – indeed, with the figures currently showing a fall of 8% for home students in Northern Ireland the system there may even be contracting, in line with warnings from university leaders last year.  In the EU it’s a mixed picture, but plenty of EU nations have more tightly controlled entry to university and serve a smaller proportion of the population.

A smaller version of the same trend is also visible in the Welsh figures, with the growth in Welsh students higher in uncapped England than in capped Wales (although the increase in Welsh students in England is still only 3%).

For Welsh students,  study costs the same either side of the border.   So – counter-intuitively –  the fastest growing groups of students in England are all the ones  facing the highest cross-border costs by going to  study there.

At the same time, lifting the cap has not yet caused a large rise in students from England.  That does not suggest significant unmet demand for HE in England amongst those qualified to get a place.  Falling numbers of 18 year olds and part-time students being put off more by rising costs will both be relevant here.  But fee levels may also be kicking in as a constraint on full-time growth: it is impossible to know.

Notably, the number of EU students has fallen in Scotland and Northern Ireland (-6% and -20%), but risen substantially  in England and also Wales (+14% and +18%, compared to the same point last year).  EU students benefit from free tuition in Scotland and cheaper fee costs in Wales and Northern Ireland. At first sight, for this group availability of places rather than cost seems to be more clearly the issue: but EU numbers have been particularly volatile over the clearing period in the past.

It’s early days, but there’s definitely something worth watching in this year’s UK’s cross-border flows for those interested in the relative influence of cost and the availability of places on levels of participation in HE.

UCAS placed students in English institutions 5 days after A-level day 2015

Change For comparison
Domicile 2014 2015 Nos % Change in students studying in-country
E 319,760 328,330 8,570 3%
NI 3,260 3,620 360 11% -8%
S 1,400 1,540 140 10% 3%
W 7,660 7,920 260 3% 1%
EU 17,860 20,430 2,570 14% n/a
Total 351954 363855 11,901 3%

Source:  UCAS


Border-crossing Scots lose free tuition, although they may also save a year of living costs, due to shorter degree programmes, and at low incomes may pick up institutional grants or fee waivers. Northern Irish students have their fees capped below £4,000 if they stay at home, but pay up to £9,000 elsewhere in the UK. Systems elsewhere in the EU all have lower fees than in England, although some EU students may be banking on never having to repay the fee loan issued by the UK government and, as in Scotland, courses in England will tend to shorter than at home.




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