THE Scholarly Web - 19 December 2013

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

December 19, 2013

The government’s surprise abolition of the student number cap for England earlier this month had bloggers across the country scrambling to have their say.

The WonkHE blog asked GuildHE chief executive Andy Westwood for his reaction to chancellor George Osborne’s announcement.

“Like everyone else I thought this year’s Autumn Statement was going to focus on the cost of living, energy and fuel prices,” he writes. “For all I know it might have done but I haven’t yet got past the announcement of 30,000 extra university places next year and the abolition of all number controls in 2015-16.”

Mr Westwood says he is pleased that “after all of the arguments about both the affordability and the desirability of a mass higher education system, George Osborne has come down firmly and decisively in favour of both”. He describes the announcement as a “game-changer”, although adds that it is “fiendishly difficult” to assess whether ministers’ plans to pay for the expansion through the sale of the student loan book are feasible.

“There will be more places AND more competition – great news for those institutions already doing well – more worrying for those that aren’t currently able to reach their target numbers under the existing system,” he concludes.

On the Vox Political blog, journalist Mike Sivier attempts to make some of the points he feels Mr Osborne neglected to include in his speech. The chancellor said that the additional funding would be “financed by selling the old student loan book, allowing thousands more to achieve their potential”; however, Mr Sivier feels he should have added that this would be “pushing thousands into the hands of debt collectors”.

Author and higher education expert Andrew McGettigan says in a post on his Critical Education blog that one of the “biggest conundrums” resulting from the announcement is “how to control the finances without ‘core’ recruitment caps set for each institution”. He suggests that the answer could lie in the Browne review, which recommended introducing what he describes as a “different form of control”.

“Home and EU students with university places would only qualify for ‘student support’, loans and maintenance grants, if they achieved a minimum ‘Ucas tariff’,” he explains.

He then quotes Mr Osborne saying that the proposed expansion would be for “young people who have worked hard at school, got the results, want to go on learning and want to take out a loan to pay for it”.

“A minimum entry requirement of this kind would keep control of finances, but test the limits of traditional ‘institutional autonomy’ and present difficulties for dealing with other qualifications and other forms of experience,” he concludes.

The New Left Project, which promises “high quality comment and analysis on issues of concern to the political left”, used its blog – perhaps unsurprisingly – to dismiss Mr Osborne’s statement. “Of all the lines in George Osborne’s autumn statement speech this week, the idea that UK higher education is on a ‘secure footing’ ranked high on a scale of taking the bloody piss,” it says. “This was days after the second strike of higher education workers this term.”

Send links to topical, insightful and quirky online comment by and about academics to chris.parr@tsleducation.com

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