Liberalising student numbers: don’t stop at ABB

Reform must go all the way, argues Bill Rammell

September 19, 2013

David Cameron talks of the ‘global race’ - but unlike Mo Farah, we aren’t keeping up with the pace

Fifty years ago, the Robbins report argued that for “modern societies to achieve their aims of economic growth and higher cultural standards”, they needed to “make the most of the talents of their citizens”. Its answer was to call for an immediate expansion in the number of UK universities and student places. In the decades that followed, governments of all colours have shared a commitment to widen access to higher education. However, I know from my own experience in government that encouraging student aspiration, respecting university autonomy and making the figures add up is a fine balancing act.

When I became minister for higher education in 2005, I soon realised that the distribution of student numbers between universities was a matter of command and control that would not have been out of place in the former Eastern Bloc.

I was therefore keen to promote the liberalisation of student numbers to allow universities to respond to student demand and national need. That is why Labour allocated extra student numbers and employer co-funded places – and why we launched the “new university challenge” to support additional centres of higher education.

I therefore welcome the further (although limited) liberalisation of student numbers that David Willetts, the universities and science minister, has introduced – first for students achieving AAB at A level or the equivalent, and now for those with ABB. However, this does not go far enough and I have real concerns that the initiative will stop there. The policy contributes to the unfortunate impression that only universities recruiting exclusively at ABB or above matter – a message reinforced by much of the media coverage around university admissions this year.

The UK still faces a huge international challenge in building a highly skilled, globally competitive workforce. This was best articulated under the Labour government through the Leitch review of skills in 2006, which committed us to increasing the proportion of UK adults qualified to level four (degree level or the equivalent) from 29 per cent to at least 40 per cent – a commitment the present government has not resiled from.

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills says that in the future, more than half of new jobs will be in occupations that require degree-level qualifications. Across the world, we are seeing an explosion in demand for higher education. Prime Minister David Cameron talks of the “global race” – but unlike Mo Farah, we aren’t keeping up with the pace.

Modern universities such as the University of Bedfordshire recruit students at ABB and the equivalent, but we also excel at unlocking students’ potential whatever A-level grades they start with.

This essential role – much of it founded in the hard yards of outreach work, raising aspiration among some of our most disadvantaged communities to help people reach their potential – must be incentivised and celebrated. Restricting the liberalisation of student numbers to ABB and above runs counter to this.

The logical conclusion is that full-time student numbers should be completely liberalised. The onus would then be on us as universities to compete on teaching quality, contact time and the student experience – ranging from civic and community engagement to the development of students as global citizens through extra and co-curricular offers that enhance employability and entrepreneurial skills.

I know that some colleagues in the modern university sector may not share my confidence, but I’d back our ability to be relevant, thrive and succeed within such a competitive environment. I also know that the Treasury will have concerns about predictability and affordability – but we know and are able to predict the number of A-level and equivalent students each year.

Stopping at ABB reinforces a damaging divide between universities that seek to widen opportunity as far as possible and those that restrict their focus to an “elite”. The time is right to open up competition: right for the UK, right for universities and right for students.

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