The government needs to have a “serious conversation” about how to tackle soaring demand for higher education to make sure poorer students don’t miss out, the university admissions service has said.
John Cope from Ucas told The Independent that disadvantaged pupils risked losing out on places as competition for places rose unless ministers helped the sector expand.
It comes as the second-highest number of students on record were admitted into universities on A-level results day on Thursday, following an all-time high the year before.
Ucas forecasts the number of higher education applicants – more than 700,000 this year – will soar to at least 1 million by 2026.
This is expected to be driven by more people wanting to take up higher education, more 18-year-olds in the general population and a surge in international students wanting to study in the UK.
In an attempt to explain the scale of soaring demand, Mr Cope said between 10 and 20 new universities would need to be built to cater for the 250,000 extra applicants forecast to want places in the next few years.
“That’s not going to happen. Because they’re simply not in the system at the moment,” Ucas’ director of strategy said.
And the demand is not just for universities, but across the whole education sector, according to Mr Cope. “The strain will be felt across the system,” he said.
“Our concern is at the moment, there isn’t a serious conversation happening with government and universities, colleges and apprenticeship providers of how to build and expand the sector,” he told The Independent.
“That conversation isn’t happening. And therefore the consequences of it could be disadvantaged students being disproportionately affected because of a more competitive system, less people having access to some form of educational training and the lost economic benefits of that as well.”
He explained that poorer students could miss out due to the long-standing attainment gap, which sees their better-off peers typically have better chances of academic success.
In this year’s A-level results, 58 per cent of private school candidates got the top grades – A and A* – in all subjects, compared with just under 31 per cent at secondary comprehensive and middle schools. This gap was wider than before the Covid pandemic hit, with the figures 44.7 per cent and 20.5 per cent in 2019.
Mr Cope from Ucas has suggested soaring demand for higher education could be dealt with by tapping into the growing number of students looking at apprenticeships.
He said this would be easier if the government required all apprenticeship opportunities to be publicised via Ucas services, so they are easier for students to browse when they are trying to find suitable career options.
Earlier this week, the chief executive of Ucas told The Independent more students should be steered towards apprenticeships rather than traditional degrees to bring down soaring demand for higher education places.
A spokesperson for Universities UK, which represents more than 100 institutions, said: “The continued demand for a university education is a credit to the world-leading research and teaching on offer at UK institutions.”
They added: “Universities have been doing more with less for some time already. Student experiences and resources have been maintained so far, but there may be difficult choices ahead.”
They said it was “more important than ever” for the government to provide “the right support and a stable funding environment” for universities.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “This government is investing nearly £900m over the next three years to support high-quality teaching and world-class facilities in our universities, which includes the largest increase in government funding for the higher education sector in over a decade.
“A traditional three-year degree is not the only route to success and a great job, which is why we are investing in degree apprenticeships and high-quality technical training options that are just as prestigious and rewarding as academic routes.”