Grade for trouble

The AAB plans could limit choice, narrow participation and damage the UK's reputation, Christopher Snowden argues

July 28, 2011

The White Paper's complex mix of proposals, including the new fees regime, may lead to a variety of unintended consequences.

For the small number of top universities with high proportions of the best A-level students and no desire for expansion, the plans will have little impact. However, institutions with large student numbers and substantial science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) provision face a challenging future - and a dash to a majority of AAB+ students for those that can get there.

Under the proposals, universities will be able to participate in the unrestrained recruitment of students who have AAB grades or above at A level or the equivalent - and these places will fall outside each institution's quota of places. At the same time, institutions are likely to lose 5-10 per cent of their quota each year to create an annual pool of 20,000 "marginal" places. These will be reallocated to institutions that have an average fee, net of waivers, of £7,500 or less and can demonstrate the quality of their provision.

In my view, this is likely to transfer student numbers from the leading institutions and those with large, expensive STEM provision to universities charging lower fees - threatening the "squeezed middle" and reducing the opportunity for students with ABB to study at top-ranked institutions. Furthermore, there is a risk that the UK higher education brand, which has already been damaged by the new fee and visa regime, may be further tarnished by the perception that places are being reallocated primarily on the basis of cost.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has emphasised that the AAB+ plans are designed purely to define a population for risk-management purposes - in other words, to ensure that the Treasury does not exceed its budget for student support. However, one potential unintended consequence of this is that the most attractive universities - capable of unrestricted recruitment of AAB+ candidates - could decide not to recruit their full student quotas. This would cut places nationally - and reduce the opportunities for applicants with grades just below the AAB threshold to study at top universities.

It is also likely that the AAB policy will narrow participation. With the quota of core student places expected to shrink each year, top universities will, in time, have less space to admit students with lower qualifications on the basis of contextual information.

For example, the University of Surrey's In2Surrey scheme is targeted at state-funded schools and colleges to support disadvantaged applicants. A number of In2Surrey students are likely to fall just short of AAB and therefore will occupy places within our quota. The scheme will continue to widen participation, but the availability of places may well be squeezed.

The White Paper thus contradicts the government's widening-participation strategy, which has encouraged universities to set ambitious targets for it in their access agreements.

In addition, UK figures show that a higher proportion of arts and humanities students achieve AAB+ grades than do STEM pupils. This means that the White Paper could encourage universities to pursue subjects with higher qualification profiles and lower delivery costs at the expense of STEM. This runs counter to government statements about STEM's economic importance.

There is also the problem that alternative qualifications taught in the UK, plus those from the European Union and abroad that are not included in Hefce's AAB equivalences list, such as the French Baccalaureate, might be devalued. Opportunities for mature students with unconventional entry qualifications will also be reduced at leading universities. Additionally, AAB requirements could influence prospective students' pre-university choices - for example, schools and colleges may decide to offer the International Baccalaureate owing to the perception that it is easier to achieve AAB equivalence than in other qualifications.

In this light, it would be worth considering whether a student-number control that took account of "output measures" might be more meaningful than one based solely on the "input measure" of entry grades. Perhaps a measure of graduate employment?

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