Zero-sum game

May 10, 2012

Congratulations to John Gill for highlighting one of the major implications of current higher education policy ("All for one, or none for all?", Leader, 3 May). The sector is looking and being treated less and less like a single entity: indeed, it is being divided and atomised.

That view is reinforced by your news coverage ("Marginal incentive: coalition 'blinks first in game of chicken'", 3 May). What the mission groups that "welcomed" the announcement about the extension of the AAB policy do not seem to appreciate is that the game they are playing is largely zero-sum. Almost all AAB and ABB students already go to university - and generally to a small group of institutions - so this is not a policy that will increase choice, but one that will lead to increasingly frantic competition between a small number of universities.

What the coalition cannot do because of financial constraints is truly increase choice by removing quotas. Quotas will continue to exist, and to the extent that they may be eased in one part of the student market, they will have to be tightened in another. However, those that don't recruit AAB students will actually be at less risk than those that do: the latter will be chasing a limited pool of students while trying to protect existing recruitment. There will be no increase in choice and no increase in competition for the majority.

If I may comment on one point of detail: while I did, as quoted, say that the core-and-margin policy has been seriously diluted and will no longer provide an incentive to universities to reduce their fees, that of course is something that the state can review and reverse year to year. Universities may well increase their prices in 2013-14, only to find that the game has changed again. It is unstable, incoherent and needs sorting out.

Bahram Bekhradnia, Director, Higher Education Policy Institute

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