Student number controls for England ‘still under discussion’

DfE said to think controls could be set without primary legislation, but ministers urged to consider market is already ‘doing the job’

February 10, 2023
People wearing UK flag outfits walk through gates to illustrate Student number controls for England ‘still under discussion’
Source: Getty

Introducing student number controls for courses and universities in England deemed substandard is said to still be under discussion in the Department for Education – though it has been urged to consider that the market is “doing the job” already via falling applications.

In 2022, the DfE consulted on introducing student number controls (SNCs) and minimum entry requirements (MERs), while the government said in the Queen’s Speech later that year that it would introduce a higher education bill implementing such measures, subject to the consultation.

With a new ministerial team now in place in the DfE, neither SNCs nor MERs featured in the bill introduced to Parliament this month by the department – which focused solely on the lifelong loan entitlement.

However, sources suggested that SNCs are still under active discussion by ministers. There is also a suggestion that the DfE has changed its thinking on needing primary legislation to implement SNCs, and now thinks the existing Higher Education and Research Act would allow the Office for Students to implement controls.

There appears to be a clearer verdict against MERs, where Robert Halfon, the higher education minister, is said to be against the idea.

After the consultation closed, the DfE was said to favour capping numbers on courses falling below outcomes thresholds separately developed by the OfS to monitor quality and standards – including the proportion of graduates going into “managerial or professional employment” – and an MER set at two E grades at A level.

“I believe we are less likely to see minimum entry requirements in coming months, which is positive due to the complexities they would pose: a limited impact on student numbers, combined with a need to have many exemptions, such as for mature students and those with special educational needs, while also infringing on university autonomy in student recruitment,” said Rachel Hewitt, chief executive of the MillionPlus association of modern universities.

However, she added, “student number controls or some form of recruitment limits may be more likely to still be on the table and potentially linked to the Office for Students’ existing work on value. This is concerning, given [that] the proxies that are currently used to represent ‘value’ don’t represent the full range of successful outcomes from higher education.”

Iain Mansfield, the former adviser in the DfE who drove the SNC and MER proposals, has argued since leaving Whitehall for the Policy Exchange thinktank that government will not address declining funding for universities unless institutions accept controls on student numbers.

Meanwhile, the context for the aim of limiting student numbers in higher education may be shifting.

This week, Ucas data issued following the January deadline showed an application rate of 42.3 per cent among English 18-year-olds, down from 44.1 per cent the previous year, and a 2.7 per cent fall in the total number of applications in England.

“If the department [DfE] look at the Ucas data, they should conclude that the market is doing their job for them: an increase in the number of 18-year-olds and a fall in Ucas applications – so the demography isn’t playing through,” said Sir Chris Husbands, the Sheffield Hallam University vice-chancellor.

That could be down to reasons including “the regressive student funding reforms” kicking in this autumn, which hit low and middle earners, alongside “a hot labour market”, he added.

There was “no need for SNCs in that environment”, Sir Chris concluded.

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