EPC engineering enrolments survey results 2020/21

The EPC engineering enrolments survey gives us an early annual temperature check of the health of HE undergraduate and postgraduate engineering enrolments.

Sector pressures undoubtedly impacted the 2021 survey. The EPC reduced our focus to the changes experienced in new enrolments in engineering this autumn (plus changes in deferral and attrition behaviours) leaving us without underlying distributions to share with you. Our members faced unprecedented barriers to engagement this year, including competing deadlines and priorities; timing issues; complexities and structural changes resulting from Covid-19; and sensitivity and caution around their position.

Despite these compromises, we have together created a survey sample of:

  • 35 EPC member universities
  • covering both undergraduate and PG cohorts
  • with well distributed responses across engineering (175 distinct disciplines)
  • representing all countries and regions of the UK
  • and a typical institution type profile of previous annual EPC enrolment surveys.

Furthermore, we know our annual survey typically broadly reflects published engineering HE trends (many months after we share our findings). We tend to capture:

  • similar domicile profiles (roughly 3 in 4 undergrads in our survey are UK domiciled and approximately 2 in every 3 postgraduates are international)
  • a high proportion of overseas postgraduate enrolments, especially within the Russell Group
  • and the popularity of Mechanical (undergraduate) and Electrical, electronic and computer engineering (postgraduate).

We hope we have judged this year’s particularly challenging balance of burden, valid coverage and utility in a way which both instils your confidence and continues to offer useful insight. We are grateful to those of you who assured us of the survey’s continued high value during the collection process and thank you for recognising both its strengths and weaknesses. Your support for the survey is greatly appreciated, thank you.

Enrolments compared with 2019-20

In total, the undergraduate level of change tended towards growth, with over one-third of responses (reported by discrete discipline level) recording new enrolments at more than 10% higher – in fact, many of you reported even greater growth, citing the central policy change days into confirmation (Centre Assessed Grades) as an impetus for unexpected growth. This is supported by the pattern of home undergraduate enrolment growth, including increases of more than 10% which were higher among home enrolments than overall. Given that home undergraduates represent approximately ¾ of the undergraduate population, we can be relatively assured that 2020 was a healthy year for home undergraduate engineering enrolments. (Figure 1.)

What’s more, both EU and non-EU overseas changes in enrolment are pretty uniform, with reported levels about the same as last year dominating the mid-point with substantial range. This suggests stability in the overseas engineering undergraduate sector again this year, despite earlier fears in the sector of the impact of Covid-19 on international travel. (Figure 1.)

However, we observe less stability at postgraduate level, with non-EU enrolments showing an overall decline; over half of postgraduate engineering disciplines surveyed reported a drop in enrolments of more than 10%. Around 40% of postgraduate engineering disciplines surveyed reported a drop in EU enrolments. These differences are important as approximately 2 in every 3 engineering postgraduates are international, suggesting the overseas engineering market may have shrunk this year in this context. (Figure 1.)

Overall, home engineering postgraduates are reported to have increased, by more than 10% in over 40% of responses. Despite this, nearly 1 in 3 responses recorded enrolments to be more than 10% lower in this cohort, indicating a mixed bag within the engineering postgraduate sector. (Figure 1.) Further analysis shows that Mechanical engineering is of note at postgraduate level, clearly bucking the general decline overall in 2020. The postgraduate engineering superstar, Electrical, electronic and computer engineering appears relatively stable. (Figure 2.) This is not so at undergraduate level, where this discipline bucks the growth trend (Figure 3).

By university type, the survey reveals that the greatest decline in postgraduate engineering enrolments is skewed towards Russell Group members, who see higher international enrolments overall. Conversely, Russell Group universities dominate the increasing trends in undergraduate enrolments in engineering; with 60% of distinct disciplines at Russell Group members reporting undergraduate growth, compared with about half of that proportion at their non-Russell Group counterparts. (Figure 4.)

Regional analysis highlights a clear North / South divide at postgraduate level; decline is more pronounced than growth everywhere north of and including the Midlands. London and Wales show the greatest relative growth. (Figure 5.)

At undergraduate level, the greatest enrolments stability (in terms of “about the same” responses) is in Wales although we witness greater decline than growth (in small measure), However, the proportion of respondents reporting a decline in new enrolments of greater than 10% is broadly in line with the other regions; this is a remarkably consistent measure at undergraduate level, with the exception only of London and the East / South east. The Midlands shows the greatest proportional decline in undergraduate enrolments overall. London witnesses the greatest relative growth. (Figure 6.)

Deferrals

We sought data on deferrals in the context, initially, of reports that applicants might be deferring in greater numbers due to the uncertainty resulting from the pandemic. However, as the cycle progressed, it became clear that deferrals were also being driven by universities struggling to cope with the impact of the unprecedented shifting of results during confirmation in 2020 (qualifying a high number of conditional firms). The data we received was not extensive but did suggest an overall tendency towards more deferrals than last year, particularly among postgraduates (specifically international postgraduates) and Non-EU and home undergraduates. (Figure 7.)

Attrition

The data we received on students not returning / dropping out was patchy and ambiguous, not least because of delayed processes, exceptional delayed starts this year and more general confusion around (non) returning students and how to count them. However, the data we did receive does suggest an increase in dropout; in fact, some qualitative reports of increased progression as a result of pandemic pressures were received.

Context

Of course, we know that recruitment and selection is made in the context of institutional recruitment and admissions strategies and internal strategic pressures in any year. For example, some of the fluctuations in numbers will be influenced not current market forces but by changing course profiles and conscious decisions to adjust cohort size,.

In the devolved countries, in particular, we were told that these were also influenced by government policy and funding initiatives. Other policy factors cited included managing the impact of the central government changes to the summer exam series results and the economic context in which student decision-making occurs.

This year, many members were mindful of the impacts of Covid-19 on overseas partnerships, geography and travel limitations, and shared a wealth of administrative workarounds at play including delayed starts, arrivals and registrations and exceptional late intakes.

Sector behavior was also cited as a factor in enrolment trends; there was a perception of some pre-result unconditional offer making and, initially, unusual confirmation at lower than advertised entry requirements.

Further information

In addition to the images published above, the slide deck from the EPC Recruitment and Admissions Forum launch is available to download for all EPC members.

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