Number of undergraduates set to plummet

The number of full-time student undergraduates will plummet by 20 per cent over the next five years, it was forecast yesterday.

The dramatic cut - brought about as a result of rising debts and spending restrictions - would mean nearly 100,000 fewer students taking up full-time university courses a year.Last year there were 481,000 full-time students admitted to university.

The forecast was made at a conference in London yesterday by Chris Morecroft, chairman of the Association of Colleges' higher education group, who also predicted a move towards more part-time learning and students studying online for their degree courses.

"My prediction is 20 per cent less undergraduate full-time places in five years time," said Mr Morecroft, principal of Worcester College of Technology.

"Many, many more will take part-time places. There is a real opportunity to do things differently, You can't rely on the traditional old world of doing things in five years time. It has to change."

He added that potential students were thinking if they stayed at home they "keep their girl-friend and do a job while they studied".

He also forecast a growth in the number of private universities if - as is expected - the cap on student tuition fees of £3,225 a year is raised. So far there are only two in the UK - Buckingham and Richmond, an American owned university.

"The lifting of fees will bring in private universities," he said. "We've had this in further education for a long time."

However , he warned they would pick-up popular course options - possibly at the lower end of the academic spectrum.

His comments were echoed by John Rushforth, formerly in charge of widening student participation at the Higher Education Funding Council for England who said: "The notion of the full-time student is probably false these days.

"Nearly all full-time students work to a significant amount."

However, Professor Michael Arthur, chairman of the Russell Group - which represents twenty leading higher education research institutions in the UK, said: "It is appropriate to have more part-time and life-long learning opportunities but I would say not at the expense of the full-time undergraduate experience."

He called for a pay freeze for academics and university staff - along the lines of that being imposed on the rest of the public sector.

Lecturers negotiate pay rises with universities and - at present - have rejected an offer of a 0.4 per cent increase this year. They are demanding a four per cent rise.Professor Arthur, vice-chancellor of Leeds University, criticised the coalition Government for failing to invest in universities.

He pointed out that - while the UK was cutting university expenditure by £1.1 billion a yea -the United States was ploughing an extra £180 billion into it, France 11 billion euros, Germany 18 billion euros and Australia $1 billion. China was raising the amount of the Gross domestic product spent on higher education to four per cent while the figures for the USA and UK respectively were 2.9 per cent and 1.3 per cent respectively.

"People are beginning to become concerned about how we're the only advanced country going in the opposite direction," he added.