‘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.


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Reader's comments (4)

I send my kids to university in Canada. They use non-retention there to ensure that only the best students graduate. In my mind, a university that has high retention has the lowest standards. My experience with British universities is that the only things you need to stay in are a pulse and a chequebook. It's blatantly obvious that British universities will use the open cap as a way to pack them in and get their money. No longer are they public service institutions, educating the best and brightest. They are now just businesses, in the business of selling as many degrees as they can, at whatever level they can. It's really disgraceful.
I agree with Robert Colborne. British higher education institutions are no longer the beacon of learning or institutions of high quality. They have become vendors of qualifications. Unregulated privatisation especially with mushrooming of bogus recruiting agents and private colleges offering Edexcel courses have led to the dissemination of certificates but not the knowledge. No matter what ever new law is created, these private colleges are robust in circumventing these laws and their markets stretch from selling UK student visas to the economic migrants to facilitating the abuse of public funds by benefit tourists.
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................
@Joseph LLoyd Firstly, I have never worked in a uni and have never been made redundant. Secondly, let me explain my point. I am not against higher education nor am I against privatisation. Privatisation will help to share the burden of disseminating education to the masses which alone cannot be saddled on to the government's shoulder. However, in the name of privatisation, many unscrupulous people have entered into the industry and they are exploiting the whole education system for their commercial advantage. Few private colleges are examples of these organisations which have exploited the entire education system to such an extent that the spirit of education is lost and has been reduced to just selling the qualifications. HND and other qualifications offered by Edexcel are vocational and help the learners in developing critical thinking and provide them the soft skills which increases their employability chances. However, many private colleges have abused the system (which is not regulated robustly by Edexcel) to such an extent that any body can enrol and get Edexcel qualifications at the end of the year without studying for it. This may jeopardise the reputation and worthiness of Edexcel qualifications. Privatisation along with strict regulation and accountability will help to maintain the integrity and the spirit of education.

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