Ministers set to push on with student number controls in England

Government expected to initiate system of caps, potentially using new quality measures, but drop minimum entry requirement idea

July 4, 2023
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The Westminster government is expected to initiate the introduction of student number controls in England to bear down on courses deemed substandard, potentially using quality metrics including controversial graduate employment measures.

But ministers are expected to drop the idea of setting a sector minimum entry requirement, using GCSE or A-level grades, when it finally publishes a response to its higher education reform consultation, which was issued in February 2022. The response is likely to come in the next month, some in the sector expect.

The Department for Education is likely to back the idea of capping student numbers on courses falling short on the Office for Students’ controversial new B3 condition on quality, sector sources suggest. The condition sets numerical baselines for institutions and courses to meet, on student continuation and completion rates and on graduate employment, a metric that measures “progression to professional jobs”.

According to the OfS’ annual report, the most recent figures showed that 5.2 per cent of all providers were below baseline on continuation, 6.7 per cent below baseline on completion, and 1.6 per cent below baseline on employment progression, though that was up from 0.7 per cent two years earlier.

There looks to be too little time before the next general election for the current Conservative government to introduce a system of student number controls. Some in the sector think the government is likely to announce that it will ask the OfS to consider how to implement such a system – but that there would then be a question as to whether a Labour government would continue with such a plan.

The Conservative government has long pursued an agenda to bear down on “low value” courses. Student number controls were abolished by an earlier Conservative government in 2015 – which some in the party argue has allowed substandard courses to expand.

But Vanessa Wilson, chief executive of the University Alliance, said that with a looming shortfall of high-level skills, “any serious government would be considering how to educate more people to degree level”.

“The government should focus on supporting universities to accommodate increasing demand – not reducing places through student number controls. We need long-term solutions, not quick headlines,” Ms Wilson said.

“Giving the Office for Students the powers to use student number controls as an enforcement measure would be less of an own goal than a nationwide reduction but could still be damaging.”

Ms Wilson described the OfS’ metrics on graduate employment outcomes as “flawed”, measuring quality “based on the number of graduates going into a limited and specific type of job”.

She added: “Attaching student number controls to these measures, and a less than transparent OfS investigations process, risks limiting student choice at a time when more quality higher education options are desperately needed.”

On minimum entry requirements, the expectation is that the Department for Education will abandon the idea of setting a minimum requirement for students to be eligible for Student Loans Company funding, which many in the sector had warned would require complex exemptions to avoid penalising groups such as mature students.

Ministers at one time favoured setting a requirement of two E grades at A level. But Robert Halfon, appointed as higher education minister in October 2022, has been said to be against any minimum entry requirement.

Speaking at the Higher Education Policy Institute’s conference, Mr Halfon had said that the DfE would “hope to soon respond” to the consultation.

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Reader's comments (1)

Unwarranted and unacceptable political meddling by people who do not understand the value of anything, let alone a university education. Sometimes I wonder how some of them actually managed to graduate... Basing their meddling on the discredited metrics spouted by the Office for Students, which itself does not have the confidence of the sector, only makes things worse.