The HEFCE released Higher Education in England 2014: Analysis of latest shifts and trends last week with the news that, despite the tuition fee increase, the overall financial health of universities in England is good.

30% of all tuition fee and education contract income was generated through international (non-EU) tuition fees of £3 billion in 2012-13 and the sector is planning to invest over £3.3 billion in infrastructure projects per year (a 30% increase compared to the average over 2010-11 to 2012-13) during the next three years, indicating a good level of confidence. 

Furthermore, the international impact of UK research is high with the UK producing 15.9% of the most highly cited articles in the world in 2012 and 11.6% of all global citations. Additionally, the UK produces the highest number of citations per million dollars of higher education research and development spending. 

There is, also, signs of a strong recovery in numbers of full-time undergraduate entrants, which grew by 8% in 2013-14. This brings the total number of entrants to around 378,000 - 27,000 more than in 2012-13. This growth appears set to continue in the next year with UCAS reporting 3.7% growth in the number of UK and EU applicants compared with 2013-14. 

However, the number of undergraduate international students is continuing to slowdown - with 3% growth in both 2012-13 and 2013-14. This is significantly lower than the growth experienced in 2010-11 as well as compared with the US where the international undergraduate student population grew by 10% in 2012-13 compared with the previous year. 

About a quarter of all full-time undergraduate international entrants in 2012-13 joined courses after the first year. This suggests that progression into English higher education is often from transnational education programmes delivered overseas or through articulation arrangements with overseas institutions. 

One major problem they’ve identified is the fall in part-time undergraduate students - entrants have decreased by 46% between 2010-11 and 2013-14 which equates to approximately 120,000 fewer. This fall has been predominantly felt in foundation degrees, certificates and diplomas of higher education, HNDs and HNCs and study for institutional credit. 

It is clear that part-time education is not a priority for the government - however, advocates of part-time higher education, such as Birkbeck, University of London, consistently show that part-time study helps upskill and reskill the workforce, supports economic growth, promotes social mobility, helps build society and allows disadvantaged individuals to improve their lot. Foundation degrees etc. are the sorts of courses that offer non-traditional students a way of getting started, and are often the first step towards a full undergraduate degree.

There is better news with regards to disadvantaged students, with the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students narrowing. 18-year-old students from disadvantaged areas in England were 9% more likely to be accepted for entry to higher education in the UK in 2013 compared to 2012.  

A-level subject choice and university subject choice also provide some interesting trends. 

A gap increasingly opens up at lower levels of achievement between those with more ‘facilitating subjects’ (maths and further maths, English literature, physics, biology, chemistry, geography, history, and classical and modern languages) at A Level and those with less, for example, at A-Level grades of 3 Es, 60% of those with 3 facilitating subjects progress to higher education, compared with 42% of those with no facilitating subjects. This gap is not seen in students with 3 As or more at A Level, where more than 90% progress to higher education regardless.

Students taking modern foreign language undergraduate degrees fell by 22% between 2010-11 and 2012-13 and this decline is also felt in modern foreign language joint honours courses where the second subjects is not a modern foreign language.

At the same time, in 2013-14, UCAS noted that science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) applications to full-time undergraduate courses were the highest ever recorded, with nearly 98,000 acceptances. 

There was also a trend in undergraduate recruitment, with universities that ask for high tariff scores or specialist institutions having an increase in full-time undergraduate entrants compared with those with low or average tariff entry scores which have seen declining entrant numbers.