Forget the teaching excellence framework (TEF): the really radical transformation in English higher education is already under way. The lifting of student number controls, begun in 2012 and completed this year, will have a deeper impact on universities than anything in the Green Paper, some believe.
Two examples highlight the extremes of the dramatic shifts in student recruitment set in motion: Aston University has nearly doubled its UK/European Union student acceptance numbers in four years, while London Metropolitan University has seen its numbers halve.
Three out of the five biggest risers in student intake since 2011 are from the Russell Group, while three out of the five biggest fallers are post-92 universities.
To its supporters, the scrapping of number controls creates a system of greater student choice where universities’ standards are driven up as they are forced to compete to attract undergraduates. It could even pave the way towards competition for students mid-course, they argue.
However, many see the above interpretations as too simplistic and say that the easing of student number controls was always rigged to favour higher status institutions.
The details above on recruitment rises and falls are calculated by comparing Ucas figures on total acceptances for UK and EU students at English institutions in 2015, published last month, with the equivalent figures from 2011, the last year of rigid student number caps.
In 2012, the coalition government introduced the AAB system, allowing universities unlimited recruitment of students with those grades or above, succeeded by ABB the following year. Then, in 2015, student number controls were scrapped entirely. The change was originally announced by George Osborne, the chancellor, in the 2013 Autumn Statement.
Aston University is the biggest riser in terms of UK/EU acceptances (up 79.3 per cent from 1,715 in 2011 to 3,075 in 2015).
Aston is followed in the top five risers since 2011 by University College London (a 57.2 per cent increase), the University of Bristol (up 52.1 per cent), Coventry University (47.1 per cent) and the University of Exeter (43 per cent).
The Conservatives have never stated it publicly in these terms, but perhaps the following might paraphrase their view on one of the rationales behind lifting student number controls: it improves social mobility if more students have the chance to attend higher status institutions.
Russell Group members Bristol and Exeter clearly seized the chance to hoover up AAB/ABB students from other institutions perceived as less prestigious.
But big riser Coventry is a post-92 university that has been building its reputation by making rapid progress up domestic league tables, which are partly based on entry tariffs. In October, Coventry became the first post-92 to feature in the Times Higher Education “Table of Tables”, based on an average of placings in the UK's three main newspaper domestic rankings, appearing in 23rd place.
An Aston spokesman highlighted the university’s graduate employability record, along with its placement years in business and the professions, in explaining its attractiveness to students. “Aston has embraced the opportunity to grow…and we hope to increase our popularity further this year and beyond, bringing on stream new programmes, new courses and new ways of learning,” the spokesman added.
Emran Mian, director of the Social Market Foundation, who was lead civil servant on the 2010 Browne Review of higher education fees and funding, believes that “the lifting of student number controls is the most significant change working its way through the sector and this data backs that up”.
He added: “Student choice wasn’t properly effective until student number controls came off. TEF scores may help to inform student choice but the key change was to make that choice effective in the first place.”
Mr Mian continued: “I do wonder if the next step will be competition for students mid-course as well as at the point of entry. That is still to emerge as a trend but it may do over the next couple of years, especially if weaker institutions are at risk of failure. Their students will then be looking for somewhere to move to mid-course and that may be a route to further growth for neighbour institutions that are stronger.”
London Met is the institution seeing the biggest fall in UK/EU acceptances, down from 6,870 in 2011 to 3,490 in 2015, a 49.2 per cent decrease. Although 2011 was an unusually high recruitment year for the university, it recently told THE that there was "no denying that the removal of the student number controls has had an impact on post-92 universities" and that in response "we’ve had to be even more focused on stressing the benefits of universities like ours, including more classroom contact time and additional support for students".
In the list of biggest fallers, it is immediately followed by another three post-92 institutions, all with declines of more than 25 per cent in UK/EU acceptance numbers.
Some caveats need to be placed around the figures on rises and falls: Ucas’ figures are for acceptances rather than actual student enrolments, some falls may be partly explained by the removal of partner institution enrolments from the figures and some universities may have opted for lower intakes by raising entry tariffs to improve their reputation.
Nevertheless, Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, the group of newer universities, said: “The early moves to deregulate numbers undoubtedly favoured universities which trade on historic reputation as high-tariff universities.”
She added: “In recent years, universities that advertise as high tariff have frequently deflated grade requirements at the point of acceptance. This is rational behaviour in a deregulated market but it does not necessarily produce the best outcomes for students or taxpayers.”
So what will the final outcomes be from lifting student number controls? Will universities that continue to see their intake dramatically shrink ultimately face dire financial consequences? What will the future look like for universities traditionally seen as widening participation institutions? Will some traditionally selective universities become anything but in future years as they widen their intakes?
These are questions that may take years to answer, but the early signs are that the policy could prove truly transformative.