Stockpiling students? Covid-19, caps, and growth inequalities in UK HE from 2014–5 to 2018–9

Number 94: #USSbriefs94

Leon Rocha
Published in
13 min readApr 9, 2020


Leon Rocha, University of Lincoln

‘Vulture Capitalists’, artwork by Leon Rocha, based on DarkWorkX image.

In the light of the global Covid-19 crisis, the UK government and university vice-chancellors represented by Universities UK (UUK) are reportedly considering the return of student number controls (‘caps’) at English universities, to avoid a ‘free-for-all on admissions’. Whatever happens in the UK between now and September — assuming we can even start the new academic year then — international student numbers will significantly drop. This is a result of global restrictions on travel and, I would argue, the significant reputational damage that UK Higher Education suffered when the UK government appeared to pursue a ‘Herd Immunity’ Covid-19 strategy and when vice-chancellors dithered in early March over the move to online teaching and campus closure (see #USSbriefs92). This is especially a problem for a number of universities that have aggressively expanded via the income from international students, and are now trying to make up any financial black holes of their own making by ‘stockpiling’ domestic students — to the detriment of large swathes of the sector.

[Extremely Morpheus voice]: But what if I told you that many universities have been systematically ‘stockpiling’ students for the last 5 years?

This USSbrief takes a closer look at student numbers from 2014–5 to 2018–9, using Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) datasets. My argument is that a return to any cap system — so far we have scant details from the government or UUK on what that may look like [N.B. see Friday 10 April 2020 update at the end] — must not tacitly naturalise the growing inequalities of UK HE and legitimise the past unethical ‘stockpiling’ behaviour of many universities.

According to the HESA datasets, the total number of undergraduate and postgraduate students enrolled in UK Higher Education increased from 2,265,980 (2014–5) to 2,383,970 (2018–9). This is a growth of 5%. To break these numbers down into subject areas, the total number of students enrolled in ‘science principal subjects’ increased from 1,016,775 (2014–5) to 1,103,690 (2018–9). This is a growth of 9%. The total number of students enrolled in ‘non-science principal subjects’ increased from 1,249,205 (2014–5) to 1,280,280 (2018–9). This is a growth of 2%.

Of course, colleagues in different institutions would know from first-hand experience that not all universities grew by 5% in terms of student numbers, not all science departments grew by 9%, and not all arts and humanities faculties grew by 2%. In fact, we know some universities expanded dramatically. Some degree programmes are now filled to the brim with students — without corresponding addition of permanent teaching staff to deal with the new workload and stress. Many universities are now dependent on the rampant use of precarious and casualised lecturers to deliver modules and pastoral care. Other departments have been closed in the last few years or are under constant threat of closure — with wave after wave of redundancies. Let us, therefore, connect our real life experiences with data.

Limitations of HESA datasets, or, don’t get upset with me!

Let us investigate ‘HE student enrolments by HE provider and subject of study’ from 2014–5 and 2018–9. You can find the original HESA datasets here, download them as CSVs and play with them yourself. You can also scrutinise my own calculations via this Google Spreadsheet (a continuous work-in-progress) and download it to create your own remixes. Any feedback or corrections would be very much welcome.

First, you may notice that the HESA numbers are rounded. In fact, counts of people (but not finances, areas, volumes) are rounded to the nearest multiple of 5. Any number lower than 2.5 is rounded to 0, and halves are always rounded upwards (e.g. 2.5 is rounded to 5). This means that numbers in tables do not appear to add up properly. You can read more on HESA’s full methodology and rationale.

Second, you may not entirely agree with the way HESA defines ‘science principal subjects’ and ‘non-science principal subjects’ i.e. the so-called ‘Joint Academic Coding System’ (JACS 3.0 introduced in 2012–3). JACS is also used by Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), so those of you who have been admissions tutors will be very familiar with this ‘code salad’. Obviously HESA data may not match student recruitment numbers in individual departments or ‘budget centres’.

‘Science principal subjects’ include the following:

(1) Medicine & dentistry
(2) Subjects allied to medicine
(3) Biological sciences
(4) Veterinary science
(5) Agriculture & related subjects
(6) Physical sciences
(7) Mathematical sciences
(8) Computer science
(9) Engineering & technology
(A) Architecture, building & planning [for instance, in many universities architecture would belong to a faculty of arts and humanities and not in science]

‘Non-science principal subjects’ include the following:

(B) Social studies
(C) Law
(D) Business & administrative studies
(E) Mass communications & documentation
(F) Languages [includes English, one of the largest humanities subjects in UK Higher Education]
(G) Historical & philosophical studies
(H) Creative arts & design
(I) Education
(J) Combined

Third, the HESA data is not sufficiently fine-grained for us to be able to work out some details. While HESA can tell us where our students came from — for example in 2018–9, 32% of first-year non-UK domiciled students came from China — we cannot tell how many of these students from China were enrolled in ‘(E) Mass communications & documentation’ at a particular university. HESA can give us some sense of gender, age group, disability status, ethnicity and educational background of our students, but we cannot map that onto which subjects they study. Moreover, the subject-based data mashes undergraduates and postgraduates together, so we are not in a position to say how many students studying (say) History at a particular university are working towards a BA, MA or PhD. All I can say is that, as a general rule of thumb, for every postgraduate student in UK Higher Education, there are 3 undergraduate students. This rough 1:3 ratio seems to hold for 2014–5 to 2018–9.

Finally, more nuanced work is needed on universities in England and Wales, versus those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. As a reminder, the tuition fee regime plays out differently for universities in the UK nations, and I have found the table below from nidirect government services (official government website for Northern Ireland) helpful.

From nidirect: ‘This table gives you an indication of the fees you are likely to pay at publicly funded universities, depending on your country of residency and where you are going to study.’

HESA data cannot immediately tell us how many humanities students in Scottish universities are fee-paying students. As another reminder, student number controls (caps) were lifted at English universities by the Coalition government (from 2015–6 universities in England were able to recruit as many students as they liked), but Scotland continued on a different path. A cap remained in place at Scottish universities for Scottish students (who pay no tuition fee), but Scottish universities can recruit however many fee-paying students from other parts of the United Kingdom.

In fact some Scottish universities have been taking the opportunity to do just this. To illustrate: in 2014–5 the University of Edinburgh took on 11,110 Scottish students (no fee) and 6,950 English students (fee-paying), and by 2018–9 Edinburgh took on 10,815 Scottish students (3% decrease) and 9,400 English students (35% increase). Could it be that certain Scottish universities have been ‘stockpiling’ English fee-paying students? [Ed. note: There is now a separate Appendix dedicated to the analysis of 19 Scottish HE institutions.]

‘Stockpilers’ versus ‘losers’ in the UK HE supermarket

To see how I have arrived at the following analysis, you can check this Google Spreadsheet.

Let us start with the Russell Group conundrum. The 24 Russell Group universities are, in alphabetical order: Birmingham; Bristol; Cambridge; Cardiff; Durham; Edinburgh; Exeter; Glasgow; Imperial; King’s; Leeds; Liverpool; LSE; Manchester; Newcastle; Nottingham; Oxford; Queen Mary; Queen’s Belfast; Sheffield; Southampton; UCL; Warwick; York.

The total number of students at these 24 Russell Group universities grew from 595,785 (2014–5) to 665,690 (2018–9). This is a growth of 12%, compared to the overall HE sector growth of 5%.

The total number of science students at the 24 Russell Group universities grew from 303,510 (2014–5) to 338,665 (2018–9). This is a growth of 12%, compared to overall sector growth of 9%. The total number of ‘non-science’ students grew from 292,290 (2014–5) to 326,990 (2018–9). This is a growth of 12% again, compared to overall sector growth of 2%. This suggests that Russell Group universities have been ‘stockpiling’ students, particularly in the arts and humanities, at the expense of other institutions.

However, the growth of student numbers within the 24 Russell Group universities has been uneven. From 2014–5 to 2018–9, Liverpool expanded by 31%, Queen Mary by 29%, Exeter by 22%, Bristol by 20%, Edinburgh by 19%. Oxford and Southampton contracted. At first sight, UCL appears to have grown 38% within the same time period, but once Institute of Education numbers are taken into account (the Institute of Education was absorbed by UCL in 2014), UCL has grown by 16%.

If we break this data down into science versus ‘non-science’ students, then the biggest Russell Group ‘stockpilers’ in science include: Exeter (up 32% from 2014–5 to 2018–9); Edinburgh (24%); Liverpool (23%); Queen Mary (22%). The biggest Russell Group ‘stockpilers’ in ‘non-science’ students include: Liverpool (a whopping 43% growth); Queen Mary (36%); Bristol (28%); York (23%); King’s (22%). Interestingly, ‘non-science’ numbers contracted by 9% at Oxford from 2014–5 to 2018–9, and Manchester saw negligible increase in ‘non-science’ students in the same period.

Stockpiling students: growth of student numbers in Russell Group universities, 2014/15–2018/19

Placed in this context, the reported deterioration of working conditions at University of Liverpool and the Liverpool UCU local dispute in 2019 are understandable. Student numbers at Liverpool increased overall by 31% from 2014–5 to 2018–9; 73% of this increase came from UK students and 27% came from non-UK students. However, academic staff FTE (full-time equivalent) including ‘atypical’ only increased by 15% (2,325 in 2014–5 to 2,680 in 2018–9) [1].

However, Russell Group universities have not necessarily been the most aggressive expanders between 2014–5 and 2018–9. A number of Post-92 universities have grown their student numbers enormously during this period: Roehampton (66%); Suffolk (52%); Falmouth (50%); De Montfort (31%). One pre-92 (but non-Russell) university catches the eye: University of Sussex (42% overall growth with 37% in science and an eye-watering 44% in ‘non-science’ student numbers). At Sussex, 65% of this growth came from UK students, and 35% of this came from non-UK students. Academic staff FTE including ‘atypical’ at Sussex only increased by 22% in this period.

The biggest ‘losers’ in the UK Higher Education supermarket have been, unsurprisingly, Post-92 institutions. From 2014–5 to 2018–9, these universities have significantly shrunk in terms of student numbers: London Met (35% decrease; perhaps still suffering from the fallout of having its foreign student licence revoked in 2012–3); Plymouth (24%); Kingston (23%); Cardiff Met (22%); Staffordshire (16%) and Cumbria (16%). But a few pre-92 universities have also really lost out: Aberystwyth (20%), Birkbeck (18%) and Bradford (16%). The situation at Birkbeck may be explained by the downturn in part-time student numbers and the restricted funding for part-time study.

If we break this data down into science versus ‘non-science’ students, then science recruitment numbers collapsed at, for instance, London Met (37% decrease), Bedfordshire (29%) and Greenwich (19%). ‘Non-science’ numbers look particularly bad at Post-92s: Cardiff Met (35% decrease); Plymouth (35%); London Met (33%); Kingston (30%); Cumbria (29%); Edge Hill (28%); Glasgow Caledonian (23%); University of Central Lancashire (22%). Pre-92s with ‘non-science’ recruitment woes include: Aberystwyth (27% drop); Bradford (27%); Birkbeck (22%); Hull (20%); Bangor (19%).

Here be dragons — or neoliberal beasts

So the return of student number controls — the lifting of which has done untold harm to the UK Higher Education sector — may, at first, sound like great news. Our colleagues at Post-92 universities have seen recruitment collapse while some institutions have been ‘hoarding’ students for the past few years, and our colleagues at those ‘stockpiling’ universities have seen workload and stress spin out of control. But the return of caps — at the moment vaguely defined by the Department of Education and UUK [N.B. see Friday 10 April 2020 update at the end]— may not necessarily be the silver bullet that we are all hoping for.

How would the government decide which university would get x number of students? Caps used to be tethered to entry requirements and A-Level attainment. But A-Level examinations have been cancelled, and so students will now receive ‘grades’ based on their teachers’ predictions — with the attendant problem that students from independent schools tend to receive more favourable grade predictions. Or would the caps be calculated using TEF and graduate outcome? The most likely path, I think, is that universities will argue that the re-introduction of caps would be based on the number of students that ‘would have been recruited’ if Covid-19 ‘did not happen’. In other words, universities will claim that they have an ‘expected growth rate’ of x% and then apply some sort of discount — despite having already grown 20%, 30% or even 40% since 2014–5.

However, this will not take into account how many universities — as shown in my analysis — have been ‘stockpiling’ students before Covid-19. Could vice-chancellors of different institutions, who are in competition with each other, be trusted to arrive transparently at a solution to their collective problem, when they do not all share the problem to the same degree — thanks to ‘stockpiling’? More likely, the more hawkish vice-chancellors at ‘prestigious’ and overleveraged universities will wheel and deal with the Conservative government in order to protect themselves, once again at the expense of Post-92 universities.

On 2 April 2020, the UCU General Secretary wrote to Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education. What the General Secretary wrote about the return of ‘caps’ has generated some discussion on social media; some UCU members criticise the union for the apparent ‘lukewarm’ support of ‘caps’. However, if UCU had come out strongly in favour of a cap with no firm details, I would worry that we played right into the hands of employers. What I do not want is a cap system that would excuse — or at worst bake in — the current, pathological state of UK Higher Education.

Update: Friday 10 April 2020, noon

On Good Friday — perhaps while everybody is paying attention to something else — UUK has issued a press release entitled ‘Package of measures proposed to enable universities to play a critical role in rebuilding the nation’. This is accompanied with the usual tone-deaf tweets and a paper, entitled ‘Achieving stability in the higher education sector following COVID-19: A proposal to government for a balanced package of measures to maximise universities’ contribution to the economy, communities and the post virus recovery’. Here we have the first description of what the ‘cap’ is going to look like (note that the UUK document avoids any use of the terms ‘cap’ or ‘student number controls’):

Introduce a one-year stability measure to treat students fairly and protect them from major volatility in the admissions process (including those who have already received conditional offers who achieve the grade profile attached to an offer). Institutions in England and Wales in 2020–21 would be able to recruit UK and EU-domiciled undergraduate students up to the sum of the 2020–2021 total forecast for UK and EU-domiciled full-time undergraduate students (plus 5% of the intake), submitted to the Office for Students (OfS)and HEFCW.

If that seems abstruse, here is how The Guardian reports this:

The proposal would result in universities in England and Wales temporarily capping their UK and EU undergraduate intake at the forecasts that they have already submitted, plus a maximum increase of 5%.

This seems like more-or-less ‘business as usual’ to me. Universities are ‘capping’ intake at the forecasts that they have already submitted —with many aggressive stockpilers presumably having submitted optimistic forecasts before Covid-19 — and they then get another 5% on top of that. So it is even more odious than baking in the unequal growth; it is baking in the sector’s self-destructive ambitions. Imagine that the number of cigarettes I smoke has increased from 1 pack a week (2014–5) to 5 packs a week (2018–9). Because smoking is bad for everybody, I need to ‘cap’ my smoking. So my ‘cap’ is this: in 2020–1, I forecast that I will be smoking 6 packs a week, so I will smoke 6 packs a week plus I get 5% on top. This is not a ‘cap’ in any meaningful sense.

UCU has also made a press release and the UCU General Secretary argues:

The proposed cap will do nothing to stop Russell Group institutions hoovering up more students from the newer ‘post-92’ universities. To rein this in, the government must provide proper underpinning for whole sector and insist on more effective cooperation from universities.

Hard agree.

Update: Saturday 11 April 2020, noon

There is now a separate Appendix dedicated to further analysis of 19 Higher Education Institutions in Scotland.

Update: Monday 13 April 2020, 9am

There is now another Appendix dedicated to further analysis of undergraduate student numbers in History and English across UK universities.


[1] Refer to Nicky Priaulx and Gail Davies’ #USSbriefs88 on how precarious/casualised staff are counted by HESA and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA).


Thanks to numerous colleagues for engaging with me on social media and therefore prompted me to carry out this data analysis, and to Catherine Fletcher for her astute comment in The Guardian, ‘Ending student quotas has been disastrous for higher education’ (4 February 2020). My gratitude to Alice Bennett, Jo Edge and Andrew Chitty for the refinement of some of the arguments above. All errors are my own; if you spot any please contact me via email

This paper represents the views of the author only. The author believes all information to be reliable and accurate; if any errors are found please contact us so that we can correct them. We welcome discussion of the points raised and suggest that discussants use Twitter with the hashtag #USSbriefs94; the author will try to respond as appropriate. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



Leon Rocha

Trade union campaigner and organiser; historian of modern China and medicine