Ex-minister warns against admissions ‘micromanagement’ via caps

Student number controls idea seen as response to ‘handing over levers’ to shape English provision in 2010 switch to loans-based system

March 8, 2022

A former Conservative universities minister has warned that government “micromanagement of university admissions” in England via student number caps will damage social mobility, while a former director of fair access has questioned what powers ministers or the regulator have to make such a move.

The Westminster government said in its consultation on policy proposals arising from the Augar review that it could introduce a system of student number controls (SNCs), with options ranging from a “sector-wide cap” to “more granular” limits set by institution or subject, potentially setting them by looking at outcomes including graduate earnings.

Sector figures say the Department for Education is stressing that the consultation is a genuine and open one – that it has not decided whether to introduce SNCs, or if it did, what kind to use. But they also fear an aim to cut student numbers and public spending via SNCs – and that any such plan could have very significant impact on the sector, as well as being a huge administrative exercise.

SNCs that capped numbers sector-wide and at individual institutions were abolished by a previous Conservative government in 2015.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone, a former Tory universities minister, highlighted expansion in recruitment of disadvantaged students in higher education between 2010 and 2021, but said that the government “hasn’t understood or acknowledged that universities can only act as engines of social mobility in this way because the sector has been able to expand to meet demand without rationing access for traditional learners”.

“The mooted return of number controls would be a major setback to social mobility and represent a deeply unconservative constraint on student choice,” he warned.

Lord Johnson also said that it was “incoherent to combine student number controls with the post-2010 system of student finance”, based on student loans rather than direct public funding.

“In a predominantly loans-based system, in which learners will now be assuming responsibility for the cost of their courses for 40 years [under the extended repayment period announced in the government’s Augar response]…it should be student choice that determines the size and shape of the sector, not government micromanagement of university admissions via a welter of institutional and subject caps and quotas,” he added.

Meanwhile, Chris Millward, former director of fair access and participation at the Office for Students, now professor of practice in education policy at the University of Birmingham, said that the SNCs idea showed the government “looking for levers to try to shape provision” towards its priority areas, such as STEM courses.

“It’s exploring how it can do it through number controls rather than money, because there isn’t extra money,” said Professor Millward. “Augar proposed rebalancing fee and grant. The government is not proposing to add to the grant.”

He added of any move to restrict loan access at institutions or particular courses: “I don’t think the [government] paper…provides any clarity on how the number control would be implemented. Would it be government or the OfS? And what power would they use to do it? I’m not clear what powers there are to do it.”

More broadly, he pointed out that “in a system where the Strategic Priorities Grant [direct public funding] is £1.5 billion and the spending on student loans is £10 billion, government has very little influence over provision”.

The 2010 trebling of fees and slashing of direct public funding had seen the government “handing over levers to influence provision”, with the SNCs issue highlighting broader “long-term questions about that balance between private and public incentives within the system”, Professor Millward said.


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Reader's comments (1)

I am pleased that this idea is being consulted on and hasn't just been introduced. In my view the introduction of a blunt tool like SNC is a retrograde step that would crush opportunity and access to university for thousands of talented students. How on earth can a government focused on levelling-up agendas and high skilled jobs for the UK be seriously considering limiting social mobility and access. It is ill conceived and damaging and and we must be clear in our response that it would damage our recovery and economic prosperity in the medium to long term.


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