‘Unusual’ growth in student numbers will be reviewed

Willetts hints that ‘unplanned’ expansion after cap lifts will be scrutinised

March 6, 2014

Source: Rex Features

Busman’s holiday: ‘Inspector’ Willetts vows to keep an eye on student numbers

Institutions could be inspected if they take on “unusual” numbers of “unplanned” extra students when the cap on undergraduate recruitment is lifted in 2015-16, according to the universities and science minister.

This is David Willetts’ first indication of how the government might ensure that universities do not simply “pile it high and sell it cheap”, as he put it, when the cap is removed.

In December, the chancellor, George Osborne, announced the funding of an extra 30,000 places in 2014-15 before uncapping undergraduate recruitment altogether the following year.

In a speech in Canberra last week as part of a tour of Australia, Indonesia and Singapore, Mr Willetts said that he was discussing with the Higher Education Funding Council for England whether “unusual levels of unplanned growth or above-expected levels of dropout” could trigger an institutional review.

Citing plans by the US president to focus federal funding on institutions with good student retention, Mr Willetts said: “This is the sort of idea we might consult on in the future – perhaps with a benchmarking system for retention, in which the funding council had a clear remit to claw back funding if an institution had shown a significant decline over time.”

Australia uncapped undergraduate enrolments in 2012. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of funded places grew by 22 per cent, although there have been fears that this has led to lower entry standards.

When the cap comes off, the UK government expects an extra 60,000 people to enter higher education.

Such growth would be on a par with what happened in Australia, said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, which means that it “could actually be an underestimate because England has a bigger population…and removing the cap here applies to people across the European Union”.

Although a “tough backstop” would limit the growth, it would “equate to retaining the numbers cap by the back door, which is not the intention”, he added.

Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London, found little unexpected in Mr Willetts’ suggestions, barring that about reviews in case of “unusual” growth: “One would have thought that in an uncapped system no level of growth would be ‘unusual’.”

Rewards for retention were “double-edged”, he added, because they give institutions “an incentive to make it easier for students to pass”.

Heather Fry, director for education, participation and students at Hefce, said the council was considering how best to maintain quality as student numbers rise.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

I cannot agree with Ikram Khan, sounds like a sore loser, maybe recently redundant from a uni showing upset at reduced numbers. HE is the future for many British youngsters & those not so young who want a HND rather than a degree and it is foolish to talk generally about the private sector in the way he does. If the State sector was scrutinised in the same manner, especially financial viability, many would close overnight. People in glass houses................

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