English universities will need to find more than 350,000 extra places to keep up with growing demand, a think tank has found.
More than 40% of the demand for places will be in London and the South East due to demographic changes and higher levels of participation, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) study found.
But the think tank says introducing a cap on student numbers in England could “be detrimental to the push for greater equality of access” to higher education.
Instead, universities and the Government should consider how best to scale up and prepare for this increased level of demand.
These figures could be even higher if access and participation targets are met and if more school-leavers seek university to avoid a tough labour market post-pandemic, the report suggests.
The number of 18-year-olds in England is also set to rise for the next 15 years.
If demographics were the only factor, demand for degree courses would only rise by around 40,000 places by 2035, the research says.
But if participation also increases over the next 15 years at the same rate as it has for the last decade then there could be an overall rise in demand of 358,000 full-time places by 2035.
However, Scotland will see a fall in demand for places over the same period despite increased participation due to a decline in the 18-year-old population, according to the think tank.
Changes of demand in Northern Ireland are expected to be closer to Scotland than England due to similar demographic and participation changes but these projections were not calculated due to methodological differences.
Report author Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at HEPI, said: “There have been declining numbers of 18-year-olds in the population in recent years, which has impacted the way universities have operated.
“However, 2020 is the last year of this trend and universities are set to see a significant rise in student numbers over the next fifteen years.
“Among focusing on their recovery from the current pandemic, universities will need to consider how they can scale up to incorporate this level of demand.
“Government will also need to consider how to best prepare for this increased level of demand.”
She added: “If the Government is committed to levelling up across the country, perhaps the focus should be on the disparity of participation rates across England, rather than debating national targets.”
Emma Hardy, Labour’s shadow universities minister, said: “The demand for higher education was going to increase before the added pressure of those needing to retrain because of the Covid crisis.
“For the UK to be a high-skill, high-wage economy, we need a higher education system that can meet people’s aspirations and support them to follow their chosen path.”
Earlier this week, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said students applying to start university in 2021 are unlikely to face tougher competition for places due to this year’s events.
Speaking to students on a UCAS Facebook live event, Ms Donelan said: “There are no reasons why the competition is going to be a lot higher next year based on what’s happened this year.”
Clare Marchant, chief executive of UCAS, added that next year’s cohort will be at a far greater advantage than applicants in 2024 as the numbers of 18-year-olds in the population is still low.