No system-wide planning, no number controls, blank cheques from the government—the approach here is crazyby Alison Wolf / September 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
Modern lives are built around the academic year, as our ancestors’ were built around the harvest. This September, with almost half of school-leavers heading for higher education, universities will crank up for almost 2.5m arrivals and returnees. Meanwhile, senior managers will be hyperventilating over student numbers. Have we recruited enough? Have the offer-holders actually turned up? What if they haven’t?
It’s not only universities but also English schools that are now more directly dependent on student numbers than they used to be, or than is the case in most countries’ systems. Almost all the payments that cover their teaching costs come on a direct, per-student level: one extra pupil or student means more money; one fewer and the budget falls. And since they come—or don’t—for a whole year, September is the killer month.
This makes for highly competitive recruitment, which is at its most cut-throat at university level. In theory, anyone in the country can apply for a university place. They can apply anywhere; there are no formal entrance requirements which universities are required to set; and unlike schoolchildren university students criss-cross the country. Moreover, since 2015 there has been no limit on how many students an English university can accept; and, critically, any English student is immediately eligible for government loans, for fees and living expenses. So if they want to come to your university, they can. For the moment at least, other EU students also get fee loans automatically, but don’t have the same right to support with maintenance; international students, meanwhile, just pay.
Recruitment is a wide-open prairie, with the government picking up the bill for every English person who signs. Some (not all) of the students will eventually repay, of course, but that comes far later and has nothing to do with the universities, who just get the money upfront. The only wrinkle is that the number of 18-year-olds has been falling, but the proportion enrolling has continued to rise, and it is only a few years until the new demographic bulge that has been filling the primary schools starts to apply.
For universities overall, all this is great; for individual institutions, not always. Some have expanded dramatically and still turn many applicants away; others have shrunk and face this autumn with dread. In just the three years to 2018, Exeter’s student intake from England rose by 2,560, or almost a fifth. But in that same period, Kingston lost almost 20 per cent of its recruits from England—a hit of at least £27m in annual revenue (more if the lost students were in science or creative arts, because those subjects attract a government top-up). In Cumbria, a smaller institution, a drop of about 1,500 translated into a fall of a sixth in the whole student body.
Knock-on effects have been rapid. There is a fast-rising acceptance rate for applicants with poor attainment: as recently as 2013, only about half who managed nothing more than a BTEC pass got accepted; now almost three-quarters do. Unconditional offers—meaning the university will take you whatever you get—have exploded. Until 2014, they accounted for less than one per cent of offers: this year, UCAS, the central applications service, estimates nearly two applicants in five received at least one.
Then there is “year zero.” This means that universities develop an additional “foundation” year, which comes before the first year of a degree but is treated as an integral part of it, meaning students are eligible for loans and funding. Those with low grades can be invited to sign up. Since access courses already exist in further education colleges at a fraction of the price, the Augar Review, of which I was a member, recommended doing away with this practice—but for the sector, the attraction is obvious. Since the cap on numbers was lifted, both “year zero” entrants and the number of universities offering them have soared, especially in business and social studies. In several institutions, there are well over 1,000 students entering on this basis.
The scramble for students makes marketing big business. Since 2005 university marketing and public relations staff numbers have risen nine times as fast as academics. You can see their handiwork—and discern the underlying stress in the system—from the proliferation of year-long marketing campaigns and slogans. Recent ones include “Never Stop Believing” (Oxford Brookes), “Launch Yourself” (Leicester), and “Dear Future, I’m Ready” (Plymouth). All are visible on the UCAS clearing website where, in August, students in search of an alternative—or better—offer find universities with empty places and a strong desire to fill them.
Of course competition can be valuable. So can accountability. Anyone who doubts this should visit India or Nigeria, where “planned” school systems with total security of tenure for teachers produce mass staff absenteeism, low standards and a flight to private schools, for poor as well as rich. But the English approach, with no system-wide planning, no number controls and blank cheques from the government, is also crazy. Ever-more aggressive marketing is not the way to raise university standards. But it’s what our system generates.