Unfunded places? The road to hell is paved with good intentions

In the long run, 150,000 extra students financed by tuition fees alone would damage the quality of higher education, says Steve Smith

February 25, 2010

David Green, vice-chancellor of the University of Worcester, argues that the sector should accept about half of all qualified but unsuccessful applicants in 2010-11 on an unfunded basis and accept a reduction in the unit of resource ("Radical measures to bridge gap between supply and demand", 18 February). Universities UK, which believes that universities exist to serve students and society, feels this cannot be the way forward. We want a world-class undergraduate education for everyone, and that will not be provided by an unfunded growth in numbers.

During the past year, the UUK board has taken the position that any additional student numbers must be fully funded in terms of both Higher Education Funding Council for England grants and additional Treasury money for student-support costs. In 2009, the 10,000 extra places the Government made available were not fully funded, either through resources to universities or in extra student support.

Of course, individual institutions may have different views. They can choose to dilute the unit of resource, but because student-support costs are charged to the entire sector, this would merely reduce the funding council grant and thus the overall unit of resource for all.

Let's look at the effects of the suggestion that the sector should take large numbers of students - up to 150,000 - financed by tuition fees alone. By my rough calculation, this would cost an average of £3,700 per student in support costs per year - which, under current arrangements, Hefce would have to give back to the Government from the grant. The additional students would also dilute the unit of Hefce resource by about £4,000 per student per year. That adds up to £1.16 billion a year, or a reduction in the overall Hefce budget of about 25 per cent in one year.

I started university teaching in 1976, and for the next 22 years the unit of funding fell by about 55 per cent in real terms. The fall was halted in 1998, and next year will see the first cut since then. This is because the £180 million and the £135 million reductions made to the Hefce budget last month were both the result of additional student-support costs. The end result was a 4.6 per cent cut in real terms to the unit of resource.

Note also that some of the 160,000 or so students who did not get into university last year failed to get the grades to receive a single offer: let's not forget, this happens every year. A Universities and Colleges Admissions Service study of applicants from 2003-06 shows that 37 per cent of non-placed applicants did not get an offer, and 52 per cent declined at least one offer. Thus it is a simple fallacy to think that all those who did not get a place could have been accepted had there been places available.

Many of these students may well have gone on to have very successful experiences through other education and training routes. We share the commitment to expanding opportunities for students who would otherwise not get a place; but equally, we would be concerned if we opened the door to further cuts that could undermine the sustainability of the sector.

Lord Mandelson was quite unequivocal in his speech at the recent Lord Dearing memorial conference that the Government's response cannot be to "guarantee every applicant a full-time university place". With each update from Ucas on soaring application numbers will come headlines about the "crisis in university applications" and "tens of thousands to miss out". Inevitably, there will be growing pressure on the Government - from students, parents and MPs - to make more places available to all qualified but unsuccessful applicants in 2010-11.

With this unprecedented demand for higher education courses, UUK believes there is a compelling case for continued public investment in the academy. But we must look at this in the context of the current funding climate. The Government has indicated clearly that the cap on recruiting additional students in England has come about due to the increasing costs of student support during the economic downturn.

In this situation, we all agree that "siding with the student" is the right thing to do, and that is why we cannot support unfunded growth in student numbers. Accepting a reduction in public funding per student now would, ultimately, put at risk our long-term ability to offer the high-quality experience our students deserve and expect.

In last week's article, Les Ebdon, chair of the Million+ group of new universities, said that taking on large numbers of unfunded students "would lead to a significant diminution in quality". I strongly endorse this view.

It is clear that student funding is not cheap, but we must re-examine how higher education is funded. This will be the challenge for Lord Browne's review. Unless we work with him to find funded solutions, we will face ten years of August headlines about disappointed students. But unfunded growth hurts everyone, including students in the long term.

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