'Whack-a-mole' coalition undermining own agenda

AUA chair says recruitment fines sign of government 'chasing its tail'. David Matthews reports

August 16, 2012

Fines to penalise universities for over-recruiting undergraduates are more about managing "ineffectual" government policies than correcting problems created by institutions.

That is the view of Matthew Andrews, the new chair of the Association of University Administrators and academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University, who also said that the coalition had been "chasing its tail" in an attempt to correct the unintended consequences of its higher education policy.

The government has said that fines for over-recruiting will rise "significantly" this year while also warning that if universities under-recruit by more than 5 per cent of their student quota, the allocation will be cut next year.

But with no historic data to judge how many offers to make, this presented a problem for admissions officers that was not of their own making, said Mr Andrews, who took on the AUA role on 1 August.

"At the moment the way the fines are being set up, it's more to manage ineffectual government policy than ineffectual universities," he said.

Mr Andrews described government policy as "a bit like whack-a-mole".

"A policy is introduced, it has an effect that it didn't quite consider and it introduces another policy to try to nullify it," he said.

The "irony" was that for all the government talk about markets and student choice, the rules being implemented "make it a far stricter and more regimented regime than we've had for years", he added.

He said this was particularly evident in the removal of the numbers cap for students achieving AAB or higher at A level. This was down to the government "feeling that heavily oversubscribed universities aren't taking enough of the 'right type of people'", he contended, and engineering the market to ensure that "the 'good people' won't have to filter down to the 'less good' universities".

Mr Andrews said that as the AUA grew, it "could seek to have more of an advocacy role in how higher education is run", but despite being happy to air his personal views, lobbying on policy was not "on my agenda for the next two years". His priority is introducing the AUA's system of accredited membership, where administrators can earn recognition if they demonstrate improvement in "professional behaviours".

With about 4,000 members, the AUA represents roughly 10 per cent of administrative staff whose roles are unique to higher education.

Mr Andrews said he wanted to make it clear that there was more to the body than just its annual conference, and he acknowledged that too many people joined for the association's yearly get-together but then failed to renew their membership.

The body can also be a way out for professionals who feel stuck in highly specialised jobs, he said.

"People are better at their roles when they have a breadth of understanding" - and this can come from the AUA, he added.

In this vein, Mr Andrews said that academics were "absolutely" encouraged to join.

"The AUA is very broadly about how we run universities, and that's a collaborative exercise," he added.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com.

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