As universities struggle to maintain student numbers, how did Surrey manage to grow by a third?

Richard Garner finds out what it is doing right

For months, most university vice-chancellors have been battling to try and ensure that their student applications did not do a double-dip in numbers and leave them with fewer candidates than they had in the first year of fees of up to £9,000 a year.

A last-minute surge enabled them to breathe a sigh of relief as numbers went up by 3.5 per cent – enough to avoid embarrassment among ministers, but not enough to see a return to the glory days of 2011 when record numbers were competing for places.

Some universities, though, were immune from all this angst, not least the University of Surrey, which saw applications rise by a staggering 38 per cent for 2013, with the UK and EU figure going up by 39 per cent, while the number of overseas students rose by 31 per cent.

Its vice-chancellor, Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, attributes the rise to a number of factors that have brought about a remarkable transformation since its modest beginnings as the Battersea Polytechnic Institute in 1891. It gained university status at its present campus in Guildford in 1966 and now attracts around 24,000 applicants a year for its 3,000 places.

The increase in applications covers a wide range of courses, with science high on the list of those areas showing an increase. The university singles out chemical engineering, chemistry, physics, biosciences, business, economics, English, law and politics as the areas that have seen most growth.

Sir Christopher himself comes from a scientific background – he was a microwave engineer who studied electronics and electronic engineering at Leeds University in the 1970s.

The university, too, has a proud record on science. Surrey scientists are currently working on a project to send mobile phones into space, thus advancing the development of future satellite technology.

In the field of health, too, Surrey researchers have made a major breakthrough in the early diagnosis of prostate cancer with the development of a reliable urine test allowing faster, easier diagnosis that could save lives.

"I think a major factor has been the quality of our courses – the average student at Surrey University now has two A grades and a B grade," he says. The average A-level point score of entrants has increased by 100 points since 2005.

And the argument in Whitehall is that if universities such as Surrey can do this, why not others? It surely shows the new fees regime should not be a deterrent putting people off from applying to higher education, it adds.

Another factor cited by Sir Christopher, who is due to become the next president of Universities UK, the umbrella body representing all vice-chancellors, in August, is Surrey's employability record. It has one of the best in the country for the percentage of students in graduate employment within six months of leaving university – at 95 per cent.

Sir Christopher argues this is one of the key factors preying on a student's mind as he or she decides where to apply. "We have a very high student satisfaction level and we are increasingly unrivalled in terms of our employability record," he says.

Part of the reason for this is the university's approach in offering four-year courses with a year's work experience in the third year, either abroad or in this country. It is voluntary, but increasingly students are taking advantage of it, with 60 per cent taking up the option last year. "They worked in about 600 different offices," he says, "including IBM, Volkswagen. Fifteen per cent of our students got a placement overseas." It is not a new scheme, the university first started offering it 40 years ago. What is new, though, is the students' determination to take advantage of it.

Those obtaining work placements in the UK included some who were employed in the city and others who worked for the music industry at such companies as Sony. "Companies recognise that these students have employability skills when they see what they have done on their CVs," he adds. In other words, it is not just the degree pass that is taken into account when employers assess their potential.

As a result of its success, Surrey is embarking on a major expansion scheme which will see a new research centre looking at 5G mobile communications and a new school of vetinerary medicine in 2014.

However, despite the spirit of competition being engendered in university applications by Vince Cable's Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (it can expand student numbers as much as it likes provided it takes in students with at least an A and two B grades at A-level), the university is unlikely to embark on a major increase in student numbers just yet.

While Surrey has been priding itself on its recruitment record, other universities have not been so fortunate. A breakdown of the latest figures for applications shows there is still a major gap between the numbers of men and women applying for higher education, which is most noticeable among those from the most disadvantaged communities where girls are 50 per cent more likely to apply than boys.

The figures lend credibility to Universities minister David Willetts's assertion that universities should target "white working-class boys" for recruitment in the same way as they do ethnic minorities. There is a need to raise aspirations among this community.

"There remains a stubborn gap between application rates for young men and young women," says Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas). "This is most pronounced for disadvantaged groups."

Another area to cause concern is the dearth of students wanting to study languages – possibly the legacy of the Labour government's decision of nearly a decade ago to make the subject voluntary for 14- to 16-year-olds, which heralded a dramatic slump in the number of young people taking the subject at GCSE level.

Alex Bols, executive director of the 1994 Group which represents the smaller research institutions, says the figures "reveal cause for concern," adding: "Students applying to study European languages are down by 6.1 per cent and non-European languages have dropped by 6.7 per cent."

There is, therefore, no room for complacency, but at least figures for applications such as those revealed by Surrey show that trying to increase the numbers of young people who want to apply to university in times of austerity and high fees is not a lost cause.

History of Surrey University

1891: Founded as Battersea Polytechnic Institute delivering further and higher education to some of the "poorer inhabitants" of London.

1920: Began offering classes for University of London students, awarding them external degrees.

1956: Institute designated a "College of Advanced Technology"

1963: Robbins Report proposes that Colleges of Advanced Technology should expand and become degree- awarding universities.

1965: Moves to greenfield site in Guildford where it is awarded university status the following year and becomes the University of Surrey.

1968: Rock band Led Zeppelin perform their very first gig at the university.

2007: University begins seeing a major increase in applications with a 39 per cent increase on 2006.

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Life and Style
tech

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

News
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday

Actress sees off speculation about her face in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Frank Sivero in Goodfellas; Simpsons' wise guy Louie

The sound of Goodfellas mafioso Frankie Carbone demanding $250m in “damages” would be chilling enough on film, let alone in real life.

News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
News
i100
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Year 3 Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 Teachers - Chelm...

Health & Social CareTeacher - Full time and Part time

£90 - £140 per day + Mileage and Expenses: Randstad Education Leeds: Sixth for...

History Teacher

£95 - £105 per day: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Plymouth i...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Luton: The Job:TEACHERS REQUIREDWe are...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?