The head of England’s funding council has warned that increased recruitment from the European Union hides a “flattening” in English student numbers, and called the council’s status as monitor under the new counter-terror bill “a gift not asked for”.
Madeleine Atkins, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, spoke at the council’s annual conference on 5 February at the University of London.
On undergraduate numbers, Ms Atkins said that the additional 10,000 students entering higher education this year were fewer than the number of places made available by the government. She said recruitment was “nowhere near the 30,000 that were available – but then we never predicted that from Hefce, at least”. And she continued that “in many ways the funding was not altogether there to support 30,000 had they arrived”.
Ms Atkins said that in current admissions and applications trends there is a “flattening” of the number of English-domiciled students at English universities. “We know the 18-year-old cohort is diminishing,” she said. “We’ve got five more years of decline in that cohort before we get the big pick-up again.” She added that “European increases mask that UK figure”.
Ms Atkins also looked at future funding from the government, including for Disabled Students’ Allowances. “Inevitably that DSA is going to get cut from 16-17 onwards,” she said.
Hefce was supporting research projects on the DSA that could allow it to say to the government “you need to keep this and this; if you’ve got to cut, this is the part to cut but not that”, she continued.
Hefce’s 2015-20 business plan, published on 5 February, includes an aim for Hefce to lead on “incentivising excellence in teaching and learning”.
Ms Atkins said: “Certainly in parts of the Conservative Party and, indeed, elsewhere among our stakeholders, there is an unease about whether we are really focusing on teaching excellence given £9K fees, given the debt burden many students will graduate with.”
The government’s counter-terrorism and security bill, currently making its way through Parliament, would make Hefce the monitor body for ensuring that universities have regard to new duties to “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. But critics fear that it will impinge on academic freedom and require speeches made by external speakers to be vetted in advance.
Referring to an “eight-and-a-half hour” debate in the House of Lords on the bill on 4 February, Ms Atkins said: “I don’t think there were many things said in favour of the bill in that eight and a half hours, but of course it passed.”
She added that it is Hefce’s “sense” that the bill “will be enacted before Parliament rises. At the moment at least, Hefce is identified as the likely monitor for the higher education sector. That’s not absolutely certain – it was a gift not asked for, by the way.”
She continued: “But if it does come through, we will need to be in dialogue with you [universities] pretty quickly about a co-regulation approach, about the kind of risk assessment you may be expected to do, and the kind of assurance we would seek that you have done it well.”