Admissions in the changing HE landscape

Roderick Smith

Lead Consultant, AUA Consulting

Roderick has a 25 year career in HE professional services, across a range of roles within central university services and in academic departments.  In his most recent role as Director of Admissions at the University of Birmingham. Roderick spearheaded improvements in organisation, systems, regulatory compliance and customer services.  

Having had several years of declining numbers of 18 year olds in the UK population, the trend has now reversed and the number is set to rise for the foreseeable future. Whilst on the face of it this appears to mean that it will become easier to recruit home undergraduate students, it will not be plain sailing. As ever, there will be a number of issues that intersect and make the admissions ‘game’ as complicated as ever.

First, there are the institutional issues, primarily based around the desired “size and shape” of each particular institution. Looking at size first, in crude terms higher student numbers means increased income, but this is where admissions bumps into an institution’s estates strategy – just how much more residential accommodation or classroom spaces might be needed for a (say) 10% increase in student recruitment? Many universities recruit the numbers they do not only in view of what is possible in the market, but also guided by restraints on the size of the cohort they can accommodate. Third-party accommodation providers can alleviate some of the burden, but in cities with more than one HEI, that may not be a viable option. Digital infrastructure is also a consideration: to what extent will hybrid teaching arrangements persist beyond the pandemic, potentially alleviating some classroom space pressures?

The second issue is related to what students will be studying. Whilst the government is encouraging the take up of STEM subjects, they are far more expensive to teach than arts and humanities subjects, and the unit of resource has fallen in real terms over the last five years. It is thus very likely that many institutions will not be removing their own caps on the number of students they recruit into STEM subjects. But recruiting to the arts will also become more difficult as fewer students are doing the necessary A levels (or other qualifications) so that is no longer a straightforward option. Plus, of course, the government is still threatening to reduce the fee or grant income for arts subjects, which means that income from those students will probably fall in the years to come.

So, despite increasing numbers of 18 year olds, admissions will continue to be a complicated game to play – and that’s before some form of post-qualification system gets imposed on the sector.

The government has also been making comments about wanting to increase numbers in FE at expense of HE – perhaps wanting to re-instate the divide that was all but abolished 30 years ago. It is possible that this divide will be enforced by GCSE grades, with pupils with a 4 (a C grade in old money) in GCSE Maths and English permitted to enter HE and the rest funnelled towards FE. While this would be a retrograde step, with serious implications for access and participation, it remains on the cards.

So, despite increasing numbers of 18 year olds, admissions will continue to be a complicated game to play – and that’s before some form of post-qualification system gets imposed on the sector. Whilst there has been less said about this lately, it has not gone away and we can be sure that there are civil servants (who may know very little about the practicalities of university admissions processes) somewhere in Whitehall working on a plan.

The only way to cope with all the uncertainty that the future holds is to make sure that your admissions function is as good as it can be, in terms of systems, processes and people, as well as interactions with other parts of the institution. Can we assume that what we currently have is as good as it needs to be, because it works well at the moment?  In fact what works now is unlikely to be what is needed in the future. So why not take the opportunity to give your admissions function the equivalent of an MOT test – are your systems not just fit for purpose but future proofed as well; do all your processes work smoothly and contain as few steps as possible; do you have the right people (with the right skills and training) in the right places; and is admissions positioned as it should be in your institution, with the correct connections to both academic departments and administrative functions.

AUA Consulting is a consulting practice ‘of the sector for the sector’.  AUA Consultants are practitioners in higher education administration and management – including admissions – with a depth of experience and professional expertise. AUA Consulting also offers a team of qualified coaches with expertise in personal, professional and career development. To find out how AUA Consulting can help you and your team, email Read more at AUA Consulting.