A key government policy designed to cut tuition fees has been labelled a failure after it emerged that nearly half the places reallocated to lower-cost universities went unfilled.
Data revealing a lack of student demand for low-cost places allocated under the “core-and-margin” system also show that further education colleges had more success than universities in filling the places - running contrary to the predictions of some in higher education.
For 2012-13, higher education providers in England with an average fee of £7,500 or less were allocated 20,000 places - a so-called “margin” created by top-slicing a portion of places from institutions. The Higher Education Funding Council for England invited bids for the places and distributed them on the basis of “quality, demand and cost”.
Of the 20,000 margin places, 7,000 went unfilled, according to government figures released to Shabana Mahmood, Labour’s shadow universities and science minister, in answer to a written parliamentary question.
Of the 9,600 places awarded to universities, 4,200 were estimated to have been left unfilled.
Colleges were allocated 10,400 places but failed to fill 2,800.
The margin system was one part of the government’s two-pronged plan to introduce competition into higher education. The other was the uncapping of recruitment on students who achieve AAB grades or higher at A level (a threshold that will fall to ABB in 2013-14).
However, AAB has been blamed for unfilled places at Russell Group universities after a drop in the number of students achieving top grades.
Overall, there were 51,000 fewer acceptances at English institutions in the 2012-13 academic year compared with 2011-12, a 13 per cent decline, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.
Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, described the margin figures as “disturbing”. The government had “allocated places from universities that might be perfectly popular and in demand to universities and colleges that were not in demand”, purely on the basis of price, he said.
A BIS spokeswoman said that the margin provided “a greater number of lower-cost, high-quality places” and stressed that 2012-13 had been “an unusual year, with unfilled places in many parts of the sector”.
‘Rum way of saving money’
The written answer explains the unfilled places by pointing out that institutions were expected “to recruit less than their allocation to compensate for over-recruitment in previous years”.
Mr Bekhradnia described this explanation as “extraordinary”.
“It suggests that [places] were deliberately given to institutions knowing that they wouldn’t be filled,” he said, adding that this was a “pretty rum way of saving money”.
The average tuition fee is set to rise from £8,5 in 2012-13 to £8,615 in 2013-14, although this increase is below the rate of inflation.
A Hefce spokeswoman argued that 2012-13 had been an “untypical” year for recruitment, and that institutions would have a chance to fill their margin places in 2013-14.
Ms Mahmood said that the margin policy “made a mockery” of the government’s stated aim: putting students at the heart of the system.
Places went unfilled “because the government grossly overestimated demand for the margin”, she argued.
The policy had encouraged poorer students to enter cheaper courses where less was spent on their teaching, “a policy that could only serve to further entrench educational inequality”, she added.
For 2013-14, the coalition has cut the number of new margin places to be redistributed to 5,000, with a “sizeable minority” going to institutions charging between £7,500 and £8,250, although places allocated in 2012-13 will be repeated to bed in the changes.
Nick Davy, higher education policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said he was “pretty pleased” with the number of unfilled places at colleges given the “difficult trading conditions” in 2012-13.
The margin policy had been a “success” for the further education sector because it had “clearly supported expansion” in higher education numbers, although the growth was “probably not as much as we would have wanted”, he said.
The association estimated that there were roughly 7 per cent more higher education students in further education colleges this year compared with last, Mr Davy added.