Stockpiling students? Scotland edition

Appendix to Number 94: #USSbriefs94

Leon Rocha
Published in
6 min readApr 11, 2020


Leon Rocha, University of Lincoln

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

In USSbriefs94, I used Higher Education Statistical Agency (HESA) data on student numbers from 2014–5 to 2018–9 to make two points.

  1. 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%. However, this growth has been totally asymmetric across the sector. Some universities expanded dramatically: Roehampton (66%); Suffolk (52%); Sussex (42%); Liverpool (31%); De Montfort (31%); Queen Mary (29%); Exeter (22%). Others saw student recruitment collapse in the same period: London Met (-35%); Plymouth (-24%); Kingston (-23%); Aberystwyth (-20%); Birkbeck (-18%). I argue that, some universities, particularly since the caps were lifted in 2015–6, had been effectively ‘stockpiling’ students at the expense of other universities.
  2. Universities UK (UUK) has just proposed a ‘one-year stability measure’ as a response to the global Covid-19 crisis. Institutions in England and Wales would temporarily ‘cap’ their UK and EU undergraduate intake at the forecasts that they have already submitted (pre-Covid19), plus a maximum of 5%. I argue that not only does UUK’s proposal ignore the stunning growth inequalities among UK universities in the last 5 years, in fact this ‘cap’ bakes in the sector’s self-destructive ambitions. It is not a ‘cap’ in any meaningful sense.

This Appendix takes a closer look at the 19 Scottish Higher Education institutions, again using HESA datasets from 2014–5 and 2018–9 — primarily DT051 Table 1 (‘HE student enrolments by HE provider’) and DT051 Table 13 (‘HE student enrolments by HE provider and subject of study’), as well as DT051 Table 28 (‘Non-UK HE students by HE provider and country of domicile’). I remixed these datasets and created a Google Spreadsheet.

There are 16 blocks in the Spreadsheet, which display:

  • Number of students overall (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of students from England (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of students from Scotland (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of students from Wales (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of students from Northern Ireland (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of students from other parts of UK (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of students from UK overall (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of students from the European Union (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of students from non-EU countries (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of students from People’s Republic of China (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of students of unknown origins (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of students from non-UK countries overall (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of undergraduate students (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of postgraduate students (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of ‘science principal subjects’ students (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)
  • Number of ‘non-science principal subjects’ students (2014–5 vs. 2018–9)

Yet another reminder that, while student number controls (‘caps’) were lifted at English universities by the Coalition government, a cap remained in place at Scottish universities for Scottish and EU students (who pay no tuition fee), but Scottish universities can recruit however many fee-paying students from other UK nations and non-EU countries.

‘Winners’ versus ‘Losers’ in the Scottish HE supermarket

There are 19 Higher Education Institutions in Scotland: 2 are Russell Group universities (Edinburgh, Glasgow); 7 are Pre-92 (St Andrews, Heriot-Watt, Dundee, Aberdeen, Stirling, Strathclyde, Open); 7 are Post-92 (Robert Gordon, Glasgow Caledonian, Queen Margaret, Abertay, Edinburgh Napier, Highlands and Islands, West of Scotland); 3 are classified ‘other’ (Scotland’s Rural College, Glasgow School of Art, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland).

Here comes the basics. According to the HESA datasets, the total number of students enrolled in the 19 Scottish universities increased from 232,570 (2014–5) to 253,475 (2018–9). This is a growth of 20,905 students, or 9% growth. Unsurprisingly, this growth is not equally distributed across Scotland.

Stockpiling students: growth of student numbers in Scottish universities, 2014/15–2018/19. See this Google Spreadsheet for the full data.

In fact, the two Scottish Russell Group universities — Glasgow and Edinburgh — swept up almost 45% of the new students. Basically, Glasgow grew by 15% and Edinburgh by 19%. Other universities recording significant growth included: University of the Highlands and Islands (21%); Open University (19%); University of West of Scotland (16%); Stirling (13%). Four universities contracted in the same period: Glasgow Caledonian (-0.4%); Queen Margaret (-1%); St Andrews (-1%); Robert Gordon (-7%). The biggest ‘loser’ is Robert Gordon University, which has seen its recruitment drop by over 900 students, and has sought to axe almost 100 jobs in February 2016.

Once we study the origins of these students, the picture becomes more complicated. Edinburgh ‘stockpiled’ students from England and swept up 2,450 of the 3,205 new English students (out of those 2,450 English students, 73% are fee-paying undergraduates)! The number of Scottish students at Edinburgh actually dropped by 3%. By contrast, 28% of the growth at University of Glasgow came from Scottish students, and 14% from English students. The recruitment of English students fell apart at Dundee (-25%, a loss of 635), although it accepted 1,370 more Scottish students between 2014–5 and 2018–9. The recruitment of Scottish and English students dropped at Aberdeen (-5% and -3% respectively), but Aberdeen has managed to recoup their losses by increasing the number of non-UK students (+32%, up 1,265) — one-third of whom are Chinese (up 420).

Edinburgh also emerged as a ‘winner’ in sweeping up fee-paying students from Wales and Northern Ireland. Stirling and Strathclyde also increased their numbers of Northern Irish students, while Abertay almost lost all of theirs (from 155 to 25).

Looking at EU students more closely, the moderate gains by St Andrews from across the United Kingdom are wiped out by a heavy drop of EU student numbers (-29%, a loss of 445 EU students). Dundee and Strathclyde also suffered losses in EU numbers, but yet again Edinburgh increased its EU student numbers by 14% (up 470). The non-EU sections make for interesting reading: Glasgow increased non-EU students by 59% (2,420 gain) and Edinburgh by 39% (2,635 gain). More than half of these gains at Glasgow and Edinburgh came from the People’s Republic of China. In 2018–9 there were 11,400 Chinese students in Scotland, and over 57% of them attend Glasgow or Edinburgh.

Non-EU student numbers tanked at Heriot-Watt (465 loss), Glasgow Caledonian (365 loss) and Robert Gordon (560 loss). University of West of Scotland increased their non-EU students by an astonishing 237%, but not by looking towards China; their non-EU students primarily came from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan.

If we reshuffle this data yet again to look at undergraduate versus postgraduate numbers, then Glasgow and Edinburgh are clear winners. Undergraduate numbers shrunk at Edinburgh Napier (-4%), Queen Margaret (-3%) and Glasgow Caledonian (-2%). There have been seriously postgraduate recruitment woes at: Robert Gordon (-23%, 940 loss), St Andrews (-22%, 610 loss); Heriot-Watt (-18%, 670 loss); and Dundee (-10%, 495 loss). Finally, if we play with the datasets again to compare students enrolled in ‘science principal subjects’ versus ‘non-science principal subjects’, we see jawdropping losses in humanities at Glasgow Caledonian (-23%, 1,540 loss) which are balanced by gains in science (14%, plus 1,470). University of Dundee saw science shrunk by 3% but ‘non-science’ expanded by 16%. Robert Gordon, St Andrews, and Queen Margaret were also dealt with serious blows in their humanities numbers.

TLDR version: no surprises

If you cannot be bothered to wade through all the data, the take-home lesson is remarkably simple and should not come as a surprise. Between 2014–5 and 2018–9 the two ‘Russell Group’ giants in Scotland, University of Edinburgh and University of Glasgow, have aggressively ‘stockpiled’ students. Edinburgh in particular has ‘stockpiled’ English students, and appears not so much ‘Athens of the North’ but ‘Adephagia of the North’. Any silver linings? The Open University has seen its student numbers drop by 13% in England but increase by 19% in Scotland; in Scotland funding for part-time study has not collapsed yet.

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