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…