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.