Despite Brexit, Demand for Student Housing in UK by International Students Remains Strong
More than 560,000 students applied to start a full-time undergraduate course at UK universities for the 2019/20 academic year, according to the latest applications data from UCAS. This was nearly 2,500 more applications than at the same point last year and the first year-on-year increase in applications in three years.
Understanding changing trends relating to applications and acceptances is of vital importance for accommodation providers and the purpose built student accommodation sector as it has implications for current and future student demand.
A rise in applications for the 2019/20 academic year was driven by a record number of applicants from outside of the UK, which climbed 5.7% on 2018 levels.
International student numbers increased in spite of the heightened level of political uncertainty surrounding Brexit, highlighting the ongoing global appeal of UK higher education. Overall, nearly a fifth (19.2%) of all applicants were from outside the UK.
Of particular note was a 33.3% year-on-year rise in prospective Chinese students - from 11,915 to 15,880. This follows an increase of 20.6% last year, and brings Chinese applicant numbers to nearly the same level as those from Wales and Northern Ireland (18,855 and 17,910 respectively).
Also noteworthy was a 1% increase in applications from within the European Union. Future demand from EU students will be contingent on key policy decisions on fees, financial support and immigration rules.
Applications from UK students were fairly static compared with the previous year, falling back by less than 1%. However, this is against a backdrop of an almost 2% fall in the UK's 18 year old population. Proportionally, however, 38.2% of 18- year olds in the UK applied for a full time undergraduate course, the highest ever, beating last year's record.
It is expected that growth in student numbers will be maintained over the longer-term, with Knight Frank analysis of ONS population projections, along with entry rates from UCAS, pointing to a 15% increase in full-time undergraduate numbers between now and 2030. This would represent an increase of 220,000 students.
Increasing acceptance rates have been supported by a lifting of the cap on student places at publicly-funded institutions in England since 2015, a policy which has provided institutions with greater flexibility in managing acceptances and controlling the number and distribution of places across different faculties.
Many universities for example, have now made participation in the 'Clearing' process, which matches applicants to university places that are yet to be filled, and unconditional offers a standard part of their admissions cycle. UCAS analysis shows that one-third of applicants from England, Northern Ireland and Wales aged 18 received an unconditional offer in 2018, whilst all universities, even those with the highest tariffs (those offering courses requiring higher grades), took part in 'Clearing'.
The Augar Review of tuition fees and university funding, due to conclude this year, may result in changes to policy, though the bulk of recommendations are expected to focus on reducing tuition fees. The implications of any change will vary, with lower tariff universities generally more reliant on fees as income than higher tariff institutions.
This could compound the already stark differences in demand for places across different groups and tiers of universities.
Indeed, data from HESA indicates that while overall student numbers at lower tier universities have remained flat since 2012, higher tariff universities have seen their numbers grow by 18% as students prioritise access to the highest quality courses available to them.
Lower tariff institutions within multi-university cities have been able to buck this trend, with larger, more populous student locations such as Leicester and Coventry maintaining their strong appeal. However, as the number of individuals turning 18 increases from 2021 onwards, lower tariff universities may have to work harder to attract a share of a potential increase in student numbers.
This is especially relevant given the catchments of lower tariff universities tend to be narrower. The University of Salford, for example attracted 50% of full-time undergraduate students from within Greater Manchester in 2017/18. The equivalent figure for the University of Manchester was 17%.