Even a divisive subject should get a hearing before being buried

We must properly debate all ideas: even off-quota places have some merits, as the Australian experience showed, says Don Nutbeam

May 19, 2011

Credit: James Fryer

Discussion of "off-quota" student places appeared and then seemingly disappeared without trace within the space of 24 hours last week. Even in this short time, those following the debate were left in little doubt about the strong ideological and visceral reactions this issue prompts, with many reasonably arguing the unfairness of allowing those with money to have greater choice in their university education than those without.

The idea of off-quota students is neither new nor untested. The Howard government in Australia introduced off-quota full-fee domestic student places in 1998. It was one of the most divisive higher education policies of its time. When the Labor Party came to power in 2007, it was abolished within months.

Even as it remained a hotly debated issue, most, if not all, universities embraced off-quota students and the additional income they brought. Indeed, the effects of the policy were not all bad. There can be little doubt that it enabled more students to attend university overall than would otherwise have done so - a point made briefly last week by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, before he was drowned in invective. It gave universities that wanted to expand home student numbers, and reshape the range of programmes they offered, the ability to do so in a period when this was almost impossible by other means.

Importantly, the introduction of full-fee places forced Australian universities to be much more transparent about their entry requirements. In many cases, universities admitted full-fee-paying students with grades below those required of students who received government-subsidised places - reflecting the fact that in some universities high grades were used as a mechanism for controlling entry to high-demand courses. The government eventually required universities to publish "minimum entry requirements" for all undergraduate courses. In the great majority of cases, these published criteria were below the entry requirements actually used by universities.

This public examination of entry criteria had an incidental but important added advantage. By making the grades required to enter a programme more explicit, Australian universities opened the way for a more transparent discussion of student "potential", something that universities in the UK have grappled with as a part of their widening-access activities.

The current known reforms represent a serious gamble with the advances made in opening access to higher education in England over the past 20 years. The decision to withdraw core government funding for university education, and to introduce the new system of tuition fees and loans, was taken in just a few weeks, on the basis of very little analysis of the consequences, and offering little time for public debate.

To his credit, Willetts continues to put ideas for debate into the public domain - last week he also floated in the media the possibility of cut-price degree courses being offered during clearing, arguing that he "wants to see universities competing". These issues need fuller and more open debate, backed by some evidence and analysis, to ensure that the substantial changes being made to our higher education system do not bring with them a host of unforeseen and unwanted consequences.

Willetts should be encouraged, not punished, for testing ideas in public, however radical they may be. Every time debate is closed down, we lose an opportunity to examine and test more fully the implications of the government's direction in higher education policy, and its overall coherence.

Off-quota students are an obvious manifestation of a market economy in higher education, allowing greater choice for those with money - as is the case in all markets.

A policy enabling unregulated off-quota students is evidently divisive and inequitable. But the government and universities should be engaged in debate on the coherence of the current market-oriented reforms.

Those of us running universities are challenged to think creatively about ways in which we can expand participation and improve choice in higher education for talented students while still making sure that the books balance. The current direction of policy is in danger of leaving higher education in a financial no-man's-land, with a fundamental reduction in direct government support to universities, together with much rhetoric about student choice and market discipline and "competition", but little apparent appetite for creating a genuine market - a worst-case compromise born of the realpolitik of a coalition government.

The issue of off-quota students is a clear example of debate being closed down before the issues have been thoughtfully examined. We need more debate, not less.

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