Holly Cartlidge

1 year ago

For at least ten years the decline in the number of 18-year-olds in the UK has been on-going, with it’s predicted all-time low just on the horizon and with all its associated implications for higher education providers.

But, what’s the real story about 18-year-olds?

According to data from the Office for National Statistics the population of 18-year-olds in England has been on a steady decline since 2009 and is due to hit an all-time low in 2020. It is then due to grow and by 2030 will be around the same level as 2010.

A recent report by HEPI, analysing the increase in the population of 18-year-olds and changes in demand rates, indicate that by 2030 there may be a need for 350,000 additional university places. Which is great news for 2030, but what about now?

What’s happened so far?

2017 was a tough recruitment year by all accounts, with declines from both UK and EU students.

And now, according to data from UCAS of 2018 applications by the January deadline, all countries of the UK have seen a decrease from 2017 in applications from 18-year-olds, with Scotland and Northern Ireland being down 4%, Wales 3% and England 1%. To put this into context, that’s a total of 4,260 less applications in the UCAS system than this time last year.

But are there enough 18-year-olds to go around?

A decline in 18-year-olds doesn’t necessarily equal a drop in demand. After all, British 18-year-olds have never all gone to university.

From 2014 to 2017 UCAS figures show increased applications from 18-year-olds, although the growth rate for these is slowing. However, the number of 18-year-olds in the population decreased over this time, meaning that, proportionally, university participation from this age group is increasing, even in light of a decreasing population,says Katherine Nicholls, Head of Natives Global Consulting.

While absolute numbers are down so far this year, application rates for 18-year-olds in England have increased. If this trend continues, an increase in participation rates of 18-year-olds could mean a stable, or even increased, population of 18-year-olds going to university.

There is regional variation too. 18-year-olds from London are both more likely to apply to university and represent the steepest increase in application rates from 18-year-olds. Meanwhile, 18-year-olds from the north east are least likely to apply, and 18-year-olds from the south east have seen the smallest increase in application rates. Optimistically, this indicates an opportunity to increase participation rates in some areas – through widening participation work or similar – to maintain a strong student base.

There will undoubtedly be variation across institutions too. While we are not party to these figures, UCAS reports an increase in applications for 2018 entry to programmes with an October deadline. These are medicine, veterinary and dentistry courses, as well as most Oxford and Cambridge courses, indicating that perhaps more students are aiming for programmes with higher entry grades. Meaning that the decrease in 18-year-olds could disproportionately impact institutions with lower entry grades.

What about other people who want to go to university?

Enrolments from mature applicants have been on the decrease since 2009. And according to UCAS analysis, application rates for most older age groups have decreased for 2018 (except in Scotland). However, UCAS also point out that figures at the January deadline are less reliable for older age groups than for 18-year-olds, because those from older age groups are more likely to apply later in the cycle. This is a finding replicated through our own National Clearing Survey 2017, which saw an increase of 9 percentiles in students applying for university for the first time through Clearing. So older age groups could represent an excellent opportunity, with the right marketing approach to fit with their timeframes and motivations. If you’re planning to target the Direct Applicant during Clearing this year we’ve taken a look at what you need to know about this student profile in this handy blog post.

Since 2017’s drop in applications from EU students, 2018 looks to be much more promising, with a rise in EU applications by the January deadline. It’s possible that this is a surge before whatever happens to EU student status in Brexit, happens. But it may not be.

International (non-EU) applications are also up so far for 2018, indicating that despite visa woes and strong competition from other countries (Australia anyone?) there is still demand from international markets for a UK higher education.

What are higher education marketers doing?

Overall I’m not doing much different because of the decline. I’m just working harder and smarter to reach more of the smaller audience to make sure we maintain (but preferably grow) our slice of the pie,said one in-house marketer at a Russell Group institution.

The decline in the number 18-year-olds in the UK has presented a number of challenges. But, from a digital marketing perspective, I feel that it has presented opportunities as I’m allowed to explore more channels as a digital approach can be more cost-effective,says Kenon Man, Head of Digital Marketing at Swansea University.

I’m using digital channels to test new audiences and markets to gauge interest and engagement with different messages, content and visuals. The beauty of digital is that you can run short campaigns at low cost and risk compared to traditional media, but the analytics are used to inform and support traditional tactics and channels.

I am finding myself adapting and using a number of tactics that I’ve used for international digital campaigns for the UK market as traditionally international markets have more variables to consider. I am tracking and monitoring digital activities more thoroughly, ensuring digital campaigns are integrated and that online advertising matches the online student journey.

What can you do to prepare?

While 18-year-olds might make up the majority of your undergraduate population, we have seen they are not the full story. Ensure you consider mature, EU and international students in your recruitment strategy and develop targeted campaigns and messaging to fit with their particular needs. And if you’re thinking about attracting Chinese students, our friends at Netizen Natives know just how to do it.

And don’t forget about Clearing! We know from the National Clearing Survey that Clearing is now a legitimate way to find a Clearing place, and no longer has the stigma it once did. Lots of different kinds of students apply through Clearing, presenting an opportunity to target a variety of students who are a great fit for your institution. 

And speaking of fit, we say it a lot at the moment, but make sure you’re clear on who you are. Having a clearly and consistently communicated proposition that chimes with what your students want will make it easier for students to see if you’re the right fit for them too.


If you’d like to hear more ways in which to prepare your student recruitment efforts in light of the declining demographic of 18-year-olds, get in touch.

Natives Global consulting is the leading audience insights and conversion strategies consultancy, specialising in student and education global recruitment and marketing. We help you understand your data and make better decisions.

Fill out the form with your challenge and one of our experts will be in touch.


Natives Global Consulting is the leading audience insights and conversion strategies consultancy, specialising in student and education global recruitment and marketing. We help you understand your data and make better decisions.

Fill out the form with your challenge and one of our experts will be in touch.


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