Ministers, as well as universities, have seen this week's squeeze on degree places coming for at least a year. Admitting that the imminent arrival of top-up fees was bound to produce a rush in 2005 might have been politically uncomfortable, but it did not stop Charles Clarke firing a warning shot across universities' bows last December. As Education Secretary, his brief to the Higher Education Funding Council for England was to prevent overrecruitment this autumn on pain of grant reductions for the whole sector. Mr Clarke's stance was understandable, given the longer-term importance of holding the Chancellor to his promise of maintaining state funding when fee income increases. Any suggestion that student recruitment was out of control would invite the Treasury to water down its commitment.
But 2005 was always going to be a unique year for English higher education.
As well as the inevitable scramble to avoid higher fees, it was known that the number of 18-year-olds in the UK was rising and that there would be strong demand for places from the accession countries of the European Union. Even the eventual increase of 37,000 applicants was lower than some experts had predicted.
Roughly half of the extra applicants could be accommodated if all universities and colleges went to the 5 per cent limit allowed by Hefce, but that is unlikely. Although some of the remainder would have been rejected in any year, there is no doubt that universities and colleges will be turning away thousands of qualified applicants when it would make sense for them to insulate themselves against a decline in 2006. Some of those disappointed will come back next year, but it is fair to assume that most will be lost to higher education at a time when government policy is to expand opportunities.
The biggest increases in the number of applications have tended to be at universities with high proportions of mature students and a strong access record. They should be allowed to exercise their own judgment on admissions in this exceptional year. To do otherwise would be to treat one cohort of students unfairly, to jeopardise the future of some institutions unnecessarily and to fly in the face of the Government's objectives. All this should have been settled months ago, but it is not too late to ensure that some flexibility is applied.