“Access to higher education is a basic tenet of economic success in the global race” declared the then chancellor George Osborne in the 2013 Autumn Statement that originally signalled the end of the cap on student numbers.
Just over five years on, the prospect of number controls has risen from the political ashes.
December’s bombshell announcement from the Office for National Statistics that student loans are soon to be reclassified in the public finances, adding £12 billion onto the government’s deficit figures, will have sent a shiver down the spine of many vice-chancellors. They know, as we all do, that full-time residential undergraduate degrees are an expensive way to deliver higher education.
Ministers and officials (particularly those at the Treasury) will inevitably be looking at how to bring down the cost of student loans, especially when only 30 per cent of undergraduates will ever fully pay them back.
The government has already publicly rejected the idea of a simple cap on student numbers, but that is not the only way to restrict attendance at university.
Over the weekend, it was reported yet again that the Augar Review could recommend that students with poor A-level grades are denied access to student loans for attending university.
While I appreciate that the Augar Review might be keen to get more people into higher-level vocational courses, actively trying to prevent some students from attending university on an entirely arbitrary basis would be a clumsy way of achieving it.
For a start, I cannot believe that any minister wants to find themselves explaining to a student who achieved DDE at A-level that they have been denied the chance to attend university while another student in their class who got DDD is worthy of a university place plus more than £50,000 in student loans. It would be an educational and moral minefield.
What’s more, such an approach would surely contradict two of the government’s post-18 review goals: “identifying ways to help people make more effective choices between the different options available after 18” and “enabling people from all backgrounds to progress and succeed in post-18 education”.
In addition, students from disadvantaged communities are likely to be the most visible casualty of minimum entry requirements – the political implications of which could be very uncomfortable.
Another often overlooked issue with crude grade requirements is that a student from a wealthy background at a leading private school achieving three Ds at A level is on a very different trajectory to a disadvantaged student achieving the same result at a low-performing state school in an impoverished area – something that “contextualised admissions” has tried to address in recent years.
If the government wishes to start filling its £12 billion hole sooner rather than later, it is perfectly entitled to consider different ways of curbing student numbers. Even the Browne Review of tuition fees back in 2010 accepted that “government needs some control over the allocation of student places to manage its budgets effectively”.
Furthermore, politicians who have criticised universities in recent months for their so-called “bums on seats” mentality were right to do so. Some university leaders appear far too concerned with taking £9,250 from every student who they can possibly entice, even if the degree course that they choose is of little value to the student or society.
Curbing this behaviour from universities is a desirable goal for both taxpayers and students. On that basis, rather than fiddling around with grade requirements for student loans, the government will achieve more by getting serious about student-staff ratios.
Ministers should introduce maximum student-staff ratios for university degrees but with different ratios for each type of university department. For example, a humanities department could be given a maximum ratio of, say, 20:1 because of its low-cost nature whereas medicine could be capped at 10:1.
This would give ministers a new tool to crack down on any university that chases after “bums on seats”, which would in turn reduce government expenditure on student loans.
The student-staff ratios should be set at reasonably generous levels, at least to begin with, so that only the most egregious offenders among higher education providers are put under pressure. I would also insist that the only staff included in these calculations are those on permanent contracts to prevent universities from padding out the numbers with academics on fixed-term contracts or other temporary deals.
Putting more emphasis on student-staff ratios would have the added benefit of ministers being able to say that they haven’t actually capped student numbers at all because universities can always recruit more permanent teaching staff.
Instead, ministers have merely chosen to focus more on the “quality of the student experience” (or words to that effect), which had the entirely unexpected side effect of decreasing the cost of higher education to the Exchequer.
My experience of working in government tells me that universities sitting tight and hoping that the debate over student number controls just goes away is a poor strategy.
Minimum entry grades would be a dreadful policy, but the Treasury has every right to keep this option on the table until someone can put forward a better (and, from its perspective, preferably cheaper) plan.
Supporting a crackdown on unacceptable student-staff ratios would at least show that the HE community is trying to be part of the solution rather than being part of the problem.
Tom Richmond is a former adviser to ministers at the Department for Education.