Funding chiefs are debating whether to further intervene in the workings of universities and colleges facing a crisis in student recruitment.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England this week acknowledged the student recruitment problem by publishing Supply and Demand in Higher Education .
Students are spurning new universities, provoking a recruitment crisis at several institutions. The report forms a consultation on the extent to which the funding council should intervene to protect unpopular institutions at the expense of more popular places.
Tom Wilson, head of universities at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "We are not arguing that students should be forced into going to an unpopular institution, but that it's the Hefce funding model which makes certain institutions unpopular.
"Hefce has finally realised it needs to do something about rewarding more highly institutions that widen participation. I think there is a direct relationship between retention and recruitment."
While new universities have under-recruited by more than 22,000 places since 1994, old universities have over-recruited by some 5,000. However, the pattern hides some significant variation in recruitment.
Leeds Metropolitan University, for example, has attracted an extra 1,680 students over its official maximum number since 1994. Vice-chancellor Leslie Wagner said: "Institutions can attract students from more diverse groups if what they offer meets the needs of these students. You can't just plough on with traditional offerings and then complain when there seems to be no more students."
The funding council sets the maximum number of students each institution can recruit (MaSN). But the consultation states that the MaSN no longer serves its original purpose, and hints that it should be abolished.
Similarly, the funding council tries to control expansion by allocating additional student numbers to certain institutions. However, interfering in this way actually exacerbates the situation for institutions that under-recruit.
The document says: "One possible change would be to require those bidding for additional student numbers to demonstrate a national shortfall in the provision for which they are bidding. This would help to ensure that any additional numbers allocated to one institution were not simply filled by that institution siphoning off students who might have attended another institution."
The deadline for consultation is January 25 2002.