Coronavirus: UUK proposed number cap ‘won’t end recruitment battle’

Concerns over student number control proposal aired as universities consider starting autumn term online

April 28, 2020
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Higher education experts have warned that a number cap proposed by Universities UK will not be enough to prevent instability in the sector and could lead to more prestigious institutions hoovering up recruits.

At the same time, admissions offices are grappling with a cohort whose A-level grades have had to be calculated based on teacher predictions and class rankings, rather than exams, and the possibility that first-year students will begin their studies by being taught online for the autumn term.

UK universities are facing the possibility of dramatic decreases in income in the next academic year, as student numbers – both domestic and international – are expected to dip. 

UUK's proposals to the government to protect universities include a “stability measure” that would mean in 2020-21 English and Welsh universities would only be able to recruit the number of UK and EU-domiciled undergraduate students forecast for this academic year pre-coronavirus, plus a 5 per cent margin, as a maximum.

The Department for Education is understood to be seriously considering all of UUK’s proposals, while also looking at the longer-term picture for the sector.  

However, Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, warned that the cap was “too loose to be meaningful”, as it is based on assumed growth with extra on top.

“It is so lax it is barely a cap, but still allows government to start imposing restrictions,” he said. “All universities will have a lot of spare places because of the drop in international students, and this cap allows more prestigious institutions to suck up students from less prestigious ones.”

“While I believe UUK has done a great job in coming together to speak for the sector, I am against any number cap for fear of it remaining in place in the future,” he added.

Jo Grady, the University and College Union general secretary, also cautioned against the cap, as “even with the current unfolding crisis, universities are still itching to compete to recruit students”.

The number cap “simply shifts the financial pain around the sector”, she said.  

Matthew Andrews, university secretary and registrar at the University of Gloucestershire, said that the cap was trying to do two things: smoothing the admissions process and achieving financial stability. “I would prefer to see something that looks at the issues separately…that financial stability is assured irrespective of recruitment,” he said.

Mr Andrews said his university was working hard to reassure students and to “hang on to normality”. Although he expected to welcome students to campus as usual in September, the university was also “scenario planning” for the possibility learning may need to be online until 2021.

Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Bath, said that next year there would be a larger cohort of 18-year-olds and therefore more competition for places.

He said that after an initial surge in enquiries about deferral, following the government announcement that A-level exams were cancelled, it seemed most students planned to take up their places as intended.

Mr Nicholson said the university was also exploring the possibility of a delayed start to the academic year, possibly to November, or starting wholly online in September. 

Graeme Atherton, director of the National Education Opportunities Network, warned that the temporary grading system for A levels, among other issues, could hamper efforts to widen participation this year.

“As we know, predicted grades in the past have generally underpredicted success for widening access students, thus the grading system proposed is not likely to favour them,” Dr Atherton said.

He added that a lot of outreach work centred around the summer term, but this will have been curtailed because of the coronavirus outbreak, despite universities’ efforts to move it online.

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