lmost half of English universities plan to expand their student intake over the next five years, with some setting ambitious targets to increase recruitment by as much as 50%, a survey by the Guardian can reveal.

Of the 70 universities that responded to the Guardian’s survey, 32 plan to take advantage of new funding rules that allow institutions in England to recruit an unlimited number of home and EU undergraduate students. Some 29 institutions do not plan to expand undergraduate numbers, while nine are still planning their strategy.

Among the Russell Group universities in England, Queen Mary University of London and the universities of Southampton, Sheffield, York and Newcastle all plan to take more undergraduates.

Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Exeter, Imperial, King’s College London, the London School of Economics and Political Science, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and Warwick universities say they have no plans to increase their undergraduate cohort. Some of these institutions, such as Bristol, say they have already expanded significantly.

There’s a wide range of ambition among those universities opting to expand their undergraduate intake. Essex University plans to increase its student body – including postgraduate and overseas intakes – by 50% between 2013 and 2019, admitting an extra 5,000 students. Others, such as Oxford Brookes, are planning more limited undergraduate increases of 1% and 2% per academic year.

Government predictions suggest that universities may be vying for as many as 45,000 extra undergraduate students this year alone.

But sector experts point out that similar projections byministers have previously overestimated prospective student numbers. When the cap on the number of undergraduates starting university in 2014 was partially lifted, it was predicted that universities would host 30,000 extra students. Figures show that only 15,000 extra places were taken.

“Almost every campus you go to is a building site,” says Mike Boxall, higher education expert at PA Consulting. He warns that universities are taking risks by pumping large sums of money into infrastructure projects, with no guarantee that students will enrol. 

You do have to seriously wonder where the students are going to come from to fill those places, because student demand is looking really problematic. Ucas is saying that student applications and acceptances are up and that there’s a bounce back. But that’s not happening among the students actually enrolling.

The school leaver population is predicted to continue falling until 2020, while the university application cycle is increasingly volatile, he adds. “The conversion rates between Ucas acceptances and enrolments is becoming unpredictable.”

The possibility of a Labour majority government could make university admission staff even more jittery. Labour has promised to lower tuition fees to £6,000 for students starting university in September 2016, which may result in a dip in enrolments this September as school leavers delay starting their course for a year.

Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow minister for universities, has shied away from expressing a commitment to funding unlimited undergraduate numbers, prompting speculation that the cap on recruitment could be reinstated.

This could encourage universities to recruit even more aggressively this year, says Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

If you’re a university vice-chancellor and you think that in a few years’ time the cap on student numbers is coming back, your incentive is to get as high a baseline as possible.

Some universities – including members of the Russell Group – may be being coy about their expansion ambitions, he adds. 

There are economies of scales within a university – if you take one more student and they give you £9,000, the marginal cost to your university of teaching them is probably less than £9,000. Unless universities are actively losing money on each student, they are unlikely to turn down really good students.

When the cap on student recruitment was removed in Australia, there was an explosion in marketing budgets as institutions fought to recruit undergraduates.

“The universities that place an unrelenting focus on the quality of student experience will be in the best position,” says Hillman. But he adds that institutions that rely on lots of local part-time students are vulnerable – so too are universities which offer lots of NHS and teacher training places and will therefore still be subject to number controls.

Many universities will look overseas to boost their application rates. A fast-growing source of undergraduates for English universities is EU students – who are subject to similar funding rules to home UK students and will also now be exempt from a cap on recruitment.

The “enormous unmet demand for university” among disadvantaged students will also drive university applications upwards, according to David Willetts, the former Conservative universities minister. 

The trend that has taken us in the last 50 years from 5% to almost 50% participation I personally think will go further, so I can see further growth in the domestic market.

Although the proportion of young people gaining A-levels hasn’t changed over the past 10 years, more universities are accepting young people with vocational qualifications.

Claire Callender, professor of higher education at Birkbeck and UCL Institute of Education, says this explains the growing number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who are going to university.

But the lifting of the cap may be bad news for part-time student numbers, which have already plummeted since the 2012 funding reforms, she adds. 

Where a university can fill all their places with full-time students, they will do so at the expense of part-time students.

Willetts says he hopes that in the long run Russell Group universities will expand, and blamed their reluctance to do so on a fear that lowering their entrance tariff may damage their positions in newspaper league tables.

Universities that recruit NHS or teaching students “need to make a stronger case as to why they do a good job and engage with the concerns that people have,” he says.

How risky is investing in university expansion?

“There are lots of lenders out there who feel British higher education is a good secure bet to invest in,” says Willetts.

“Obviously if an individual university messes up and has poor quality provision and a bad reputation they may find themselves with a white elephant. Then that’s their responsibility. But overall the background is growth.”

Originally posted on The Guardian 18th March 2015 –