The lifting of the student numbers cap is the government’s latest attempt to create a marketplace in the English higher education sector.
But data released by Ucas earlier this month demonstrated that policy initiatives cannot instantly create more students with the qualifications or the desire to enter university, with the annual growth rate of applications to UK institutions slowing to 1.5 per cent this year.
If some universities will be looking to expand, drawn by the prospect of increased income from tuition fees, the logical consequence is that there will be other institutions that will fall short of their recruitment targets.
As the Russell Group warned when the lifting of student number controls was announced, universities could end up prioritising quantity over quality.
Leading universities in Australia, where the numbers cap was removed several years ago, have warned that this is what happens in reality.
These pressures are likely to be most acute at clearing, which could play an increasingly significant part in the admissions process.
Admissions staff may find themselves pushed to lower entry standards to admit students with conditional offers who fall short of their predicted grades, in order to make up a shortfall in student numbers.
Of course, clearing also provides a chance for students to “trade up” to a better university if they get higher grades than expected, and the removal of number controls may offer greater opportunities to do so.
The University of Sheffield is allowing prospective students to pre-register for clearing places now, before A-level grades are published, to give them a head start on results day.
But the frenzied nature of clearing may induce some universities to take steps to reduce the uncertainty that they face.
Institutions might also find themselves having to spend more on marketing, and on new facilities to feature in prospectuses and on open days, in order to attract recruits.
There are, however, several brakes on the volatility in admissions that the reforms are likely to provoke.
While fees remain capped at £9,000 or are allowed to rise only in line with inflation, the extent to which we will see a genuine market in admissions is limited. Universities have had time to adjust to the changes, with controls being gradually eased for certain grade combinations in recent years.
And the government has shown no desire to push competition to the extent that it would allow institutions that lose out to fail.
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