Survey of more than 100 colleges reveals shocking student shortfalls

Colleges are facing a significant 16-18 recruitment shortfall, a survey obtained by FE Week suggests.

An online survey conducted by the funding consultancy Lsect and publisher of FE Week, and completed by more than 100 further education (FE) colleges and sixth forms, reported major shortfalls in actual recruitment of 16-18 year-olds for 2011/12 compared to target figures.

Although many responders said  they can recruit more 16-18 year-olds in the coming weeks, the current recruitment shortfall is 20,319.

Among those include Leeds City College – the UK’s third largest FE establishment – who say they are currently 1,000 students behind their learner recruitment target for this academic year.

Debbie Fletcher, vice principal 14-19 at the college, said the government’s decision to axe the education maintenance allowance (EMA) – a payment scheme for 16 to 19-year-olds whose families are on low-level income – may have had an impact.

However, she also said schools had been marketing their courses better.

She said: “Looking at the profile in terms of possible causes, we may be down in more disadvantaged areas so there may be an EMA impact. It’s cheaper for someone to stay at their local school then go to college.

We think it’s (the EMA) a contributing factor, but we also think schools are marketing harder to keep them.”

She also said the college is working hard to get closer to target, including a number of events to attract students, such as workshops during Colleges Week later this month, while also revamping their curriculum.

City College Norwich (CCN) is also slightly down on its target.

Principal Dick Palmer said: “Our targets are just over 5,000 and we are currently running at around 4,850, including planned later starts.

“We are confident we can do more ‘later starts’ and make up the shortfall but it is certainly more of an issue than in other years.”

He added: “One interesting component in this is that a large part of our shortfall is in A level recruitment, around 100.”

Although Mr Palmer said it is “too early to tell”, he said there could be a number of reasons.

These, he said, include financial pressure on schools to retain sixth formers, impact of the EMA cut, worries over the loss of post-16 transport subsidies and growth in local conversions of schools into academies.

He also believes the increasing higher education fees in 2012 could be putting off some A levels students.

However, Maxine Room, principal at Lewisham College, said the college is expecting to meet targets, despite an increase capacity on last year.

She said: “As we are a major vocational provider in south-east London, we felt we could increase our target this year to benefit more learners.

“However, we have had to put more marketing resources in place to reach those targets.”

A spokesperson for the Association of Colleges (AoC) said they are carrying out a study to “understand enrolment patterns” in its membership.

She said: “It would be premature to anticipate the findings before the results are in and before the end of an enrolment period that has been extended by many colleges.”

However, she added: “Anecdotally it’s a very mixed picture – there are colleges who have enrolled to capacity and others reporting issues.

“Where colleges are currently experiencing a shortfall there could be a very wide range of factors in play, including the loss of the EMA, confusion about the new replacement bursaries and fewer students looking to go to university in the wake of higher tuition fees, but again it is too early to tell without more detailed feedback.”

Download the raw survey data by clicking here.

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  1. Paul Hanks

    “Where colleges are currently experiencing a shortfall there could be a very wide range of factors in play, including the loss of the EMA, confusion about the new replacement bursaries and fewer students looking to go to university in the wake of higher tuition fees, but again it is too early to tell without more detailed feedback.”

    Where learners are no longer considering University we may see a shift towards more vocational courses, or generic vocational courses.
    This will need close investigation and detailed analysis of this years learning aims compared to the recent past

  2. The loss of Connexions has certainly had an impact, however we have picked up many students who have gone back to school to do A levels and realised that it was the wrong choice after all – how many though are stuck at school unhappy but don’t know what to do now? Our 16-18 recruitment is looking healthy, but we are amazed about nearly doubling our 19+ learners on full-time courses!

  3. At Middlesbrough College we are currently experiencing a growth of some 5% in FT 16-18 year olds (despite a demogaphic fall of some 4%). With a cohort which included some 67% of learners in receipt of EMA last year, we were very active in both campaigning against the withdrawal as well as planning a replacement scheme, which was in place by last March. We were able to talk with prospective students from that time.

    The replacement scheme focuses on free transport, reduced food prices (and free to some), free course materials and a cash bonus for excellent attendance and achievement. The scheme was worked up, very much by working with EMA students so that we could maximise the impact of the replacement scheme. The governing body agreed an investment of some £600k pa. The College serves a community which according the the Index of Multiple Deprivation is the 8th poorest in England from 324 authorities. The College regarded the replacement scheme as a moral imperative. If anyone would like further detail please do not hesitate to contact me on

    As an aside re adults. We have experienced a massive growth in enrolments with FT FE adults approaching the 1,000 mark. This is really testing our ability to meet demand given the limited adult budget available. We have looked at the age profile and well over half are in the 19-24 bracket, in other words if we turn them away, NEET. There is amassive gap between policy rhetoric and actuality. No- where is that more stark at the moment than with apprenticeships where we are currently delivering £500k of unfunded apprenticeshipe with a further demand for upto 150 more from a local employer which we can’t (at the moment) meet.


  4. In the first 6 weeks of term last year we averaged 30 students per week coming to enrol who were potential NEETs and referred to us via the Connexions service. This academic year we are hardly getting any of these ‘walk ins’ and this is a direct result of the contraction of the Connexions service.

  5. Jayne Whaling

    The shortfall has occured due to a range of factors, not least the loss of EMA. In the weeks to come it will be interseting to see if late enrolments boost the numbers, as those young people who are holding out for employment are diverted to colleges as NEET.

  6. Neil Carruthers

    We are seeing a shortfall in the learners at Foundation level, we also perceive that the loss of EMA and the incentives some other private providers are offering are having a negative impact. It is still to be seen if the Connexions service has the staff to find these lost learners.

  7. […] I believe that in a time of economic crisis, we should use what money we have to invest across the entire education sector, rather than simply investing in early years and primary schools. Yet when I made this reference on Twitter I faced an onslaught of angry Lib Dems who spoke to me as if I had broken my responsibility as a party member, tearing away from the party line like an irate toddler. But if they’d taken time to take note of the facts, they would have seen a huge drop in enrolment figures for over 100 FE colleges and sixth form centres, for the 2011/12 academic year. ( […]

  8. Mark Browne

    This is not exclusive to FE and Sixth Form Colleges. A local quick ring around indicates that School Sixth Forms are down on recruitment also. The margin is less, es expected, than FE but still raises concerns. Time will tell whether the NEET numbers increase in proportion to the recruitment decrease.