As we reach Christmas, all around the country admissions officers are wishing for a few more 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.
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.
- ‘I’m an immigrant, and proud of it’
- ‘Teaching after Trump: 8.30 a.m., 9 November 2016’
- ‘Research, researchers and the job market: thoughts on Stern’
- ‘International students: an apology’
- ‘Four-star impact’