Acid test for culture change

Sector braces itself for second round of admissions since start of government’s big higher education ‘experiment’

August 15, 2013

What’s it like, living in a Petri dish? If you work or study at an English university, you are in a similar position to a bacteria colony under laboratory observation, according to a professor of higher education who has come to the country to see how the government’s “radical policies” play out.

The comments by Jürgen Enders, who recently joined the University of Southampton and who is interviewed in our news pages this week, come as universities brace themselves for the second round of admissions since the government put on its lab coat.

There is trepidation after last year’s fluctuation in student demand but there is also hope that this year’s admissions process will be less painful for most.

After being badly burned in 2012, when many institutions were left with a financial black hole after under-recruiting, universities will be much more focused on the changed environment.

After being badly burned in 2012, when many institutions were left with a financial black hole, universities will be more alert to the changed environment

Some vice-chancellors admit in private that there was a degree of complacency in 2012 – a feeling that there had always been a steady flow of students, and that this would continue.

But the turbulence was also down to specific policies – notably the strict application of fines for over-recruitment, and the decision to move students with A-level grades of AAB or better outside the student number controls, with institutions expected to compete for them.

The problem was that total applications declined for the first time in years; many universities were too cautious when making offers for fear of fines; and then the number of students getting top grades also fell, resulting in a smaller than expected pool of AAB students for the most selective institutions to chase.

This year, universities are very much on alert, while the funding council has eased the fines for over-recruitment. In addition, the total number of applications has risen by about 3 per cent, and the AAB threshold has been reduced to ABB.

This last change should increase the pool of students outside the number controls from around 85,000 last year to 115,000 this year, and will mean that many selective universities will, in effect, be operating almost entirely outside the quota system.

The result is that students who hit the ABB mark will be in a very strong position, in demand from selective universities looking to recruit their usual cohort, and from those with ambitions to expand, as the University of Bristol and a few others did last year.

If this all sounds horribly complicated for a year that is supposed to be more stable than the last, universities may have to accept that the only certainty for now is uncertainty.

Just around the corner lies the iceberg of A-level reform, which we explore in our cover feature this week, and which holds new dangers for admissions officers.

Among them is the concern, reported in our sister paper TES last week, that the revamped A levels will not be trialled before they are introduced in 2015, with the head of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference warning that the return to linear courses may result in a significant drop in the number of students getting top grades.

In short, the experiment is far from over.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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