All we want for Christmas is a bigger pile of UCAS forms – and a farewell to 2016

As we reach Christmas, all around the country admissions officers are wishing for a few stockingmore UCAS forms to fall down the chimney. As has been well documented, applications are down across the board, and substantially so at some universities. What might the future hold in store?


A bit of horizon-scanning

I’ve learned recently (with thanks to some helpful colleagues) just how volatile application figures can be, even in the best of years. Looking at the subject-group (as defined by UCAS) of ‘Linguistics, Classics and Related’, which includes my own discipline of English, some universities have experienced drops in applications of up to 40% over an eight-year period. Others have almost doubled their applications in the same period. (I’m honestly not sure whether this is ‘classified’ information or not, so no names – but trust me, it’s true.)

Why does this happen? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. Some of those with falling figures do wonderfully well in league tables. Nor is it necessarily a matter of supply and demand, since some universities that are known to be increasing their intakes are not necessarily attracting more applicants.

There’s also a discipline-level dimension to this volatility. English studies has been trending downwards for a couple of years. Meanwhile History is trending upwards. This is equally hard to explain – although we absolutely need to be asking the questions. A few years ago, when there was a premium on AAB (or, later, ABB) applicants, it seemed to me conditions were unevenly challenging across disciplines in the humanities. But that situation was more readily understandable than the dip being experienced now by English.

Faced by these circumstances, the promotion of our disciplines becomes more important than ever. I lived through a time – as a junior lecturer, in Australia – of disciplinary contraction. And today the discipline of English studies is nowehere near as significant in Australia, in terms of the numbers of studients studying it, as it is for most major UK universities. So volatility in subject choices can have very real, long-term consequences.


And a little further down the line

It’s also worth looking at trends in A-Level provision, which may in due course have knock-on effects for universities. I was struck by a report in the autumn by the Sixth Form Colleges Association, a body representing colleges that educate roughly 20% of all A-Level students in the UK.

They reported two forms of ‘narrowing’ in provision, due to funding pressures. Firstly, increasing numbers of colleges are limiting students to three subjects, whereas in the past many students would have taken four, at least for their first year. Secondly, many colleges are cutting subjects entirely, with languages departments being hit hardest. Indeed 39% had dropped courses in at least one modern foreign language between 2011 and 2016.

And so, at a time when many people might well argue that we need students entering university with a greater breadth of expertise, we’re getting a trend in the opposite direction. This may also affect the subjects these students will choose to study.


Solidarity now?

One big problem with all these trends is that they cut very differently, from one university to another, one department to another. And the Higher Education bill currently working its way through parliament is committed to a radically open marketplace, admitting – even embracing – the possibility of ‘market failure’ (or, in common terms, a university going broke).

Solidarity is tough in these conditions. If a popular university increases its intake in a discipline from an otherwise declining national pool of applicants – because, well, it can – that’s bound to have an impact somewhere down the line. At some point, the pool runs dry. As my mother used to say: ‘it’ll end in tears’.

Equally, how are universities and academics to respond if students gravitate towards a narrower range of subjects? Personally I worry about the mega-disciplines of English and History, that dominate many humanities faculties. Small disciplines – including many languages – look inefficient to managers, but they remain vital to the intellectual lives of universities. Let’s hope a sense of solidarity can survive: the kind of spirit underpinning the ‘English: Shared Futures’ conference that I will attend next July.


And that’s 2016

Thanks for reading this blog in 2016, and special thanks to those who have retweeted or publicized it in other ways. That makes a huge difference.

If nothing else, 2016 was a good year for bloggers. When I started this blog, I intended to be writing about things that interest me and a few dozen others: widening participation, research management, the academic job market, and that sort of thing. 2016 changed that a bit. If you missed them along the way, here are my top five posts for the year.

  1. I’m an immigrant, and proud of it
  2. Teaching after Trump: 8.30 a.m., 9 November 2016
  3. Research, researchers and the job market: thoughts on Stern
  4. International students: an apology
  5. Four-star impact


3 thoughts on “All we want for Christmas is a bigger pile of UCAS forms – and a farewell to 2016

  1. Any updates on your student numbers for next year?
    Anecdotal but the top student from my school has rejected offers from “top” universities and decided to take on an apprenticeship at Rolls Royce.
    In terms of the liberal arts, a large cohort of students traditionally decide to study English or History because they liked it at school and they didn’t know what to do with their lives at the age of 18. But tuition fees have started to change that – it is no longer an “easy” non-decision to make, as a lot of money (debt) is now at stake.
    I think universities which have expanded aggressively over the last 10 years may live to regret it, as I can’t see any reasons as to why higher education in the UK will be more in demand, whilst I can think of plenty of reasons as to why demand will decline.
    Related to this issue is how universities market themselves. I think there is a fine line between good marketing and appearing desperate. Apparently some academics are now encouraged to actually phone up prospective applicants.

  2. I suspect that my English department is one of those ‘down the line’. We’ve improved our research output enormously, and numbers have halved in 10 years. We’ve dropped our entrance requirements as more prestigious universities soak up people with ever-worse A-levels. Numbers have still halved. We’ve lost the mature students that used to make up 40% of our intake too. The only bright spot is the tripling of MA students that came with loans – and we’re pretty conflicted about asking students with no family resources (99% working class, 85% are the first in the family to get a degree) to take on even more debt. We’re a good department: we do interesting research and our curriculum is quite different from a lot of places. We get some great students: many are tied to the area for family or work reasons and so come to us when they could easily get into more prestigious places. We have strong links to schools and colleges – and yet we’re in a spiral of decline.

    I share your unease at the disappearance of smaller courses too: we used to offer degrees in 15 languages. Now we have none. I’d quite like to follow the Keele route and insist on joint honours degrees for all. Will it work? Well, Keele is radically reducing the combinations available…

    Anyway, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog this year: very thoughtful (which is entirely without the new spirit of social media it seems).

    • Belatedly (in Australia over Christmas), thanks for this comment. It’s helpful, albeit depressing, to have some evidence from different ends of the market. Talking with friends in Oz over the break also indicated pressures on the humanities, across the board, over there. Your comment about MA numbers is also interesting: we had a spike this year as well, and the response of the internal planners was to mark us down for even better numbers next year. It remains to be seen, though, whether that was a one-off – a market irregularity, if you like.

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