Bring back student number controls, VC says

Sheffield Hallam vice-chancellor argues for ‘radical action’, while Alistair Jarvis says Universities UK will explore the possibility

March 30, 2020
Source: iStock/Getty

The government should reintroduce student number controls in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, according to one vice-chancellor.

Chris Husbands, who leads Sheffield Hallam University, said the move would “ensure that institutions have a viable first year student population”.

The virus outbreak has led to the government cancelling A-level exams in England, with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments also making the same moves. Instead, teachers will be asked to make a judgement about the grades they think their A-level students would have received, based on a range of data.

The Office for Students (OfS) reported that, following that announcement, institutions reportedly began giving students unconditional offers to secure their undergraduate population – and, therefore, finances – for the next year. Nicola Dandridge, the OfS’ chief executive, said this was “quite wrong” and called on institutions to stop doing so.

Writing in a blog for the Higher Education Policy Institute with Natalie Day, Sheffield Hallam’s head of policy and strategy, Professor Husbands welcomed this initial action “to prevent poor behaviour on converting conditional to unconditional offers”, but added that “radical action is needed on university admissions for the foreseeable future”.

Given the damage caused by the crisis, reintroducing student number controls, which were scrapped in 2015, would be likely to last more than one year, he said.

This could happen “either by setting institution by institution limits on admissions (as was the case until 2011) or by limiting variance to [more or less] 5 per cent for any institution against a three year average of admissions (from 2017 to 2019 inclusively),” according to Professor Hallam.

A story in The Guardian on 29 March claimed that an admissions cap was due to be announced “within the next few days”, and that the board of Universities UK (UUK) had approved the move in a virtual meeting on 27 March.

However, Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK, tweeted that UUK’s board had merely “agreed to explore options for stability measures, most importantly government financial support”, but also included looking at the pros and cons of student number controls.

No one on the board had opposed number controls but agreed that “further consideration was needed”.

Professor Jarvis said that a “range of measures to promote financial stability were discussed”. Foremost was the need for government financial support for universities that are, like other sectors, likely to take a hit from the crisis.

According to Professor Husbands and Ms Day, international student recruitment, an essential component for most universities’ sustainable operations, “may never recover from the body blow of a global pandemic”.

They also recommend universities develop “a fair and appropriate model for contextual admissions” and also address the impact of Covid-19 on retention and progression rates.

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Reader's comments (1)

An archaeologist has now been employed to discover when UUK last made a meaningful decision