Doesn't make the grade

July 14, 2011

The White Paper shows the government to lack conviction in its own policy. Limiting the supply of places by maintaining the cap on student numbers allows tuition fees to rise, frightening the government into ever-more meddling in the open market it intends to create, with various perverse consequences.

The new regime shifts most of the cost of university on to graduates, but it fails to compensate by removing the restriction on student numbers. I find this deeply unfair. It also ignores evidence in the White Paper's accompanying documents, for example an expected 10 per cent annual net rate of return to the Exchequer (as higher taxes) on investment in undergraduate degrees. Considering the net effect on the economy rather than just the cost, the government should actually encourage more students into higher education.

The government cuts quotas for applicants with A-level grades below AAB in order to keep the total constant while allowing an expansion in courses for those with AAB grades and above and in those provided for fees of less than £7,500. This hurts mainly universities in the middle ranks. Some institutions may feel forced to unnatural reactions such as changing the A-level subjects they require for a course to ones in which it is easier for pupils to get an A, even if they are less relevant to the course, or shifting their capacity to courses for which the relevant A levels are easier. Furthermore, the sub-AAB cuts mean students with "only" ABB or AAC will be faced with fewer places in the middle-ranking universities and will find themselves increasingly in the lower ones.

The sharp distinction between AAB and all lower grades is too crude a tool. If the government insists on cutting somewhere, it would make more sense to cut from the bottom by imposing a minimum grade. It has already (rightly) rejected this possibility on the grounds that it should not interfere with university admissions, but reducing sub-AAB quotas does exactly that - and in a more harmful way.

The combination of allowing any university to increase its AAB numbers but allowing only those charging fees of less than £7,500 to increase their sub-AAB numbers, while reducing numbers for all others, pushes us towards a two-class system of £9,000 universities for AAB students and £7,500 universities for the rest. The country is better served by a continuum of provision. This could be made more consistent with the other White Paper proposals if the cap on student numbers were released to allow increases at the extremes without imposing decreases in the middle.

Susan Cooper, Professor of experimental physics, University of Oxford

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