The UK Needs To Do Better When Predicting Future Student Numbers

Forecasting future student numbers can be a complicated task, but it is an important one. Students from every background, whether from special needs schools like Treloar or those who have taken the apprenticeship before joining higher education must all be accounted for. If you hope to shape a more successful higher education sector, meeting the needs of your country and its economy, then you need to prepare and the best preparation is by using available evidence with forecasting strategies.

The UK Needs To Do Better When Predicting Future Student Numbers

The Robbins Report of 1963 rested primarily on such forecasts and is regarded as having contributed to the UK’s university system as it is today. Unfortunately, it did not present with any new directions and responded only to the contemporary realities of the time. To complete the forecasts, the Robbins Committee reviewed birth rate in a post-war society with rising school achievement; thereby, predicting a more than doubling the number of full-time student placements by 1980 – assuming, of course, there was no reduction in entry competition.

In the next decade, official forecasts were presented showing a movement of numbers ‘up and down’. The Department of Education and Science predicted in 1970 that they would experience 853,000 full-time students by the year 1981, despite the 1972 White Paper predicting 750,000 students. When the time arrived, it was found that the modelling of the Robbins Committee was more accurate and approximately 535,000 students entered higher education during 1980.

Forecasting Challenges

As is mentioned, forecasting presents with several challenges; however, this does not dissuade researchers from engaging in the task. For example, during the mid-1980s, the Department of Education and Science offered two new predictions. The first stated that the same number of individuals with the correct entry qualifications would enter higher education. The other suggested that the proportion of students would increase, particularly among females.

The forecast results indicated that there would be a slight decline in applicants from the period 1985-2000 from 693,000 applicants to 633,000. The second forecast indicated that there would be an increase to 723,000 within the same period. Evidence found that both of these predictions were too pessimistic.

In more recent years, other organisations have used the procedure of forecasting student numbers to identify the number of students to enter higher education. In fact, many of the new Higher Education Policy Institute’s reports focus on this issue, and we hope it will be reconsidered in this year. The one factor that all previous attempts have when predicting future student numbers is that they take several external factors into account recognising that society is constantly changing.

Office for Budget Responsibility Create Current Forecasts

Nowadays, official student number forecasts are produced by the Office for Budget Responsibility. Unfortunately, as is explained by Hepi, the results presented are of low quality because the Office of Budget Responsibility did not consider past predictions.

In fact, the OBR considered only two inputs – the birth rate of the students and the most recent information regarding university admissions. This ignores any wider policies, such as removal of student controls, the experience of students abroad, the level of student aspirations in society, and any future labour market requirements. Nonetheless, the OBR continues to act as their forecasts are sufficient enough to sustain two new student number forecasts per annum.

According to OBR forecasts, as of March 2016, approximately 1,189,000 UK and EU students will enter full-time publicly-funded undergraduate university programmes in the academic year 2020-2021. However, these forecasts have changed regularly and the numbers have been reduced three times with the most recent number being 1,064,000 students. This latest alteration, presented in November 2017, reduces the prediction of any government funding by approximately £900 million for the stated academic year.

While the Robbins Report’s calculations were hardly sophisticated, they are light-years ahead of the procedures and predictions presented by the OBR. This is why I have been attempting to contact the OBR for a consultation on the sector and how the predictions are being calculated.

This is an issue of national importance, not merely esoteric higher education rambling. According to forecasts, student debt will contribute to approximately 20% of the UK’s national debt – not a small amount whichever way you look at it. If the OBR’s predictions on future student numbers are a sign of their work, we should be concerned about all the figures and the basis on which it plans the UK’s economic future.